The Eyes Have It – Eye Movements 1

I’ve updated this post, and recommend the newer version.

I’ve been thinking a lot about eyes and eye movements, probably because I’ve done a lot of close-up acting shots on Terra, and some of the characters have HUGE eyes. I’ve found that some of the ‘rules’ and clichés I’ve been taught about how to do eye movements don’t really hold up, or don’t go far enough. In particular, I’ve been spending time really watching people’s eyes, and looking closely at what actors do with their eyes, and looking at some good reference. This will be the first in a series of posts collecting my thoughts on animating eyes, eyelids, and eye movements.

First, let’s go back in time. Check out this clip:

[ Javascript required to view QuickTime movie, please turn it on and refresh this page ]

I saw this short recently on Thad Komorowski’s excellent Animation ID site. It’s The Blow Out from 1936, directed by Tex Avery, with the animation in this clip by Chuck Jones. I hadn’t seen much of Jones’s own character animation before, at least not shots that I knew were his, and what struck me was how much more connected I felt to Porky in these scenes that I usually feel towards characters in the relatively crude shorts from this time.*

In the above clip, Porky’s eyes are particularly well animated, with real attention to how they convey his feelings and internal process. The individual frames and drawings aren’t that impressive to me, the model is still crude, the story badly dated, and so on, but I was really engaged by the pig’s acting. Watching carefully, I think it’s almost all in the eyes. Yes, the little piggy dance is nifty, but the rest of the animation of the body is nothing too special. But the eyes are alive. They betray an intelligence and set of emotions inside the character’s head.

The 1930’s and early 1940’s were probably the key period when animator’s systematically figured out the major principles of animation (only a small subset of which are summarized in the famous 12 Principles of The Illusion of Life). A lot of what was figured out then related to acting, and to the use of eye direction, blinks, eye movements, and so on to convey thought and feeling. It’s these areas that I want to explore here, without necessarily accepting what’s been written in animation books or what gets passed on from animator to animator. I think the usual rules pertaining to eye’s and blinks and saccades are generally fine for hand-drawn animation, but this is one area where CG animation can, and should, go further.

That said, one rule that we hear again and again is that the audience pays particular attention to the eyes of our characters. This is most certainly true, probably more true than many of us keep in mind. The importance of eyes and eye movements will probably be the main topic of the next post on the subject. I have a list of topics I want to cover, and it’ll require a little research, but hopefully I’ll be putting these up on a semi-regular basis for a few weeks. Comments, critiques, and suggestions are welcomed.

*I’m talking about the Schlesinger/Warner Bros. shorts from the early to mid-1930s, the Boskos and Buddys and early Porky Pig Looney Tunes. For reference, the cartoon above came a year before Daffy was born in Porky’s Duck Hunt and four years before A Wild Hare introduced Bugs Bunny. I’m sure that the Disney shorts of 1935-1936 were likely more advanced in the acting that was being portrayed with the eyes, and there are probably other Warner’s shorts or shorts from other studios from this time that also show great progress in animating the eyes. If anyone has some examples of specific clips, I’ll be happy to post them. I’m not trying to make any claims that Avery and Jones set some new standard with this animation. It’s just that this Porky clip from The Blow Out really jumped out and grabbed me as a nice example of a genuine step forward in the art-form.


11 Responses to “The Eyes Have It – Eye Movements 1”

  1. Karen JL Says:

    Great topic for a series of posts Kevin.
    I’m a huge believer that it’s ‘all in the eyes’. Whether we realize it or not, it’s where we look. Eyes tell us everything about the character…what they’re feeling, if they’re lying, their thought process.

    Why do you think zombies are so scary…dead eyes! (I think the same was true why Polar Express scared the bajeebus out of kids…those zombie eyes). You’ll find lots more life in the eyes of the fish in Finding Nemo than most ‘realistic’ 3D. Humans can read when something isn’t ‘quite right’ in the eyes.

    It’s a priority for me when I storyboard. I make sure the pupils are clear, dark and looking in a particular spot. I would tell students not to (vertically) center the ‘head’ in a close-up, you must center the ‘face’…from eyebrows to chin. That makes for better composition and well placed eyes in the shot…they lie on one of the ‘thirds’.

    Looking forward to the other posts.

  2. Graham Says:

    I actually watched it the first time with the sound off. Works pretty well, especially when he’s running back and forth to the counter.

  3. donny Says:

    Just wanted to say that this is my new favorite animation blog!

    Your doing a great job of not only having really interesting posts with info that I haven’t seen anywhere else, but also updating on a regular basis – I check every day to see if there’s anything new!

    Thanks so much for putting the effort in Kevin, it means a lot to people who would’nt normally find it easy to access such golden info .

    The James Baxter Roughs were just sublime, never seen any of his ruffs before so thanks.

  4. alonso Says:

    I am so stoked that you are going to be exploring this subject. I think you’re right, I think that the majority of the audience watch the eyes the majority of the time, so we get all fidgety with the rest of it which has a good chance of being missed, but we should really be putting the largest chunk of time in the eyes. I’m really looking forwards to your thoughts and observations, and what insights you can bring in from your previous career.

    I have a hard time with saccades, timing them, or at least timing the hold between them, and then figuring out the amount to move the eyes but still feel like it’s looking at the same subject. I’m also still learning how to get balance looking at the listener with thinking, any thoughts on that would be great.

    I’m also interested in your thoughts on animation vs live action. Because it seems that live action they try and not move the eyes (Michael Caine on youtube says specifically to choose 1 target eye your looking at and don’t switch it) and really really reduce the brow movements, whereas in animation we seem to do the opposite.

    What are your thoughts on that whole eye direction and thought accessing. (here)

    Eagerly awaiting future posts.


  5. Thad Komorowski Says:

    Glad you found that short interesting. Jones seemed to be the all-in-one package who could really do it all… animate, pose, and direct. For the time period though, Friz’s animation on Oswald and Bosko is really charming.

    Your post on The Apartment was great too. I love that film so dearly. Jack Lemmon was a genius.

  6. DJ Says:

    “(only a small subset of which are summarized in the famous 12 Principles of The Illusion of Life).”

    yeah.. thats what i thought. much of those 12, other than appeal, were more “movement” principles, and I found a lot of such others in illusion of life. I learnt so much about eyes from you, it was just a pleasure to have you as my mentor. i will be keeping an eye out and making a list of the other subsets of the principles that might drip out on this blog.

    great posts kevin.

  7. Kevin Says:

    Wow, great comments! I really appreciate the encouragement.

    Karen, when you mentioned zombies, I immediately thought of Polar Express even before I read that part of your post! Great advice about storyboarding.

    Graham, that’s a great way to really analyze animation. Sound and music and dialog add so much so animation that they sometimes obscure whether the actual animation itself is really working or not.

    Donny, thank you!

    Alonso, I’ll definitely discuss saccades, “acting” eye movements (and Michael Caine’s advice), and probably also the eye direction/thought accessing literature.

    Thad, thanks for the great reference and information. Your site is an invaluable resource.

    And thanks to you, too, DJ.

  8. Davidbernal Says:

    Awesome!! Loving your blog TONS!! Thanks for so many great posts 😉

  9. Olive L. Says:

    actually someone mentionned this french serie on the AM forum and this episode, I think, is really appropriate.

  10. alex vaida Says:

    Hi Kevin,
    I have to leave a comment on this one as well. I mentioned once I read your posts a couple of years ago, I apologize for not having left a note back then. Please keep this site alive, I know it requires a lot of effort/time. I think it’s one of the best animation resource places one can find on the web. I am reconsidering a lot of the things I thought I learned already.

  11. Animation Article Database · Knowled Says:

    […] […]

Leave a Reply

The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch