Eye Movements 2 – Where we look

The subject of eye movements is doubly important in animation because the physiology and psychology that applies to our character’s eye movements applies equally to what our actual audience is doing when they watch our animation.

In other words, understanding eye direction and eye movement tells us not only how to animate our characters, but also how to understand (and manipulate) the viewer’s visual experience. It’s two sides of the same coin.

So where do people look when they’re looking at a face?

Eye Scan Pattern, J. Henderson et al.

From J.M. Henderson et al.


The scan pattern above demonstrates the well understood idea that when we look at a face, we tend to spend the majority of the time looking at the eyes, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the lips and nose. Tom Sito talks about the Triangle of Interest – a triangle formed by viewer’s gaze pattern as they scan between the eyes and the mouth.

Graph of proportion of time spent on major facial regions

The photo and graph above are from an eye-tracking study in which subjects were attempting to judge which facial photos were familiar or unfamiliar. What the above graph shows is that when we’re ‘reading’ a face, most of the time is spent scanning the eyes. We attend to the nose and mouth much less, and other parts of the face get short shrift. Another nice example of eye scanning a photo of a human face is here.

There is soooo much vital information in the region of the eyes, yet this region has gotten relatively little attention in most animation reference works. I spent a few hours over the weekend going though my many stacks of notes from various animation talks and lectures, and I could barely find anything on animating eyes and eye movements and eye lids. Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit gives it a single page at the very end of several hundred pages of how to animate humans. From that book you’d assume that funny walks are about 1000 times more important than good animation of the eyes. Preston Blair’s two wonderful animation books for Walter Foster (Animation and Advanced Animation, combined into Cartoon Animation) don’t explicitly touch the subject at all. Frank and Ollie’s The Illusion of Life has a rather good 7 pages or so on the subject, though much of that material relates to how to draw the eyes, or photos of kittens. Other books don’t even mention this vital subject at all.

So, our first lesson is that the audience wants to know what’s going on with our character’s eyes. The triangle of interest needs to be seen if the audience is going to connect with a character, something beginning animators frequently lose track of. From seeing the eyes the audience will learn what the character is thinking and feeling. They’ll understand the character’s attitude and what the character is focused on. What can we tell about the characters in the following two poses?

A typical face pose for a beginning animator

Another typical beginner face pose in an acting scene

Frankly, not very much. These are typical of poses I’ve seen in first-time attempts at dialog/acting shots.

One of the most common mistakes I see from beginners the first time they attempt close-up acting scenes is dramatic over-animation of the character’s head. Either the head movement is so fast and abrupt that any subtlety and nuance in the eyes is lost, or the head is constantly pushed into extreme angles. Often, a good chunk of the scene is spent with the audience looking at the top of the character’s head, the bottom of the chin, or an ear. If one’s goal is to avoid doing much facial animation, that’s the way to go. But if you want the audience to connect with your character, and understand what the character is thinking and feeling, then settle the head down, and let the animation of the eyes carry the load.

We should always be asking ourselves two questions – where should my character be looking (within their animated world), and where should the audience be looking (in terms of 2-dimensional screen space)? Implied within those two questions are finer points – how long does it take to perceive something, how quickly can someone change their focus (audience or animated character), what happens to the eyes under different emotions, and so on.

So always know where your character is looking (more on this in future posts) and where your audience is looking. It’s all in the eyes.

5 Responses to “Eye Movements 2 – Where we look”

  1. Gene Hole Says:

    this is equally true in live action, particularly theater. Those who have been trained in theater are constantly told by directors, acting coaches, etc, “let me see your face” or “I need to see your eyes.” The standard position actors on stage naturally assume is facing on a 45 degree angle to the audience so they still seem to be talking to each other, but their face (and specifically, their eyes and mouth) can be seen and their emotions more easily read by the audience. Maybe animators could benefit from spending some time in live theater events, even take some acting classes for research?

  2. Kevin Says:

    Great comments, Gene. One reason I have for emphasizing the eyes for animators is that our process is so incremental and involves such delayed feedback (a real audience may not see our work for a year or more after we complete it) that it’s easy to get lost in details, and lose sight of what’s most important.

    Funny you should mention animators taking acting classes – I was just touching on that subject for a post I’ll probably put up tomorrow.

  3. Alonso Says:

    good post, I’ve been looking forwards to it.
    Makes me think of something I read when studying psychology. They had given people contacts that were attached to a projector, so basically the image moved with your eye, (the image was of a dog) and they found that after a few second parts of the dog would fade in and out (the viewer would not see the leg anymore for example), they concluded that we get a general impression of what we are looking at and we have to refresh the image or else it fades away. Which in a way explains the wandering pattern looking at a face, we focus on the eyes which is where the most crucial information is coming through, and we occasionnally wander around to refresh our image.
    It also makes me think of those evolution shows that put actors in make up for the different stages of man, and how suddenly it looks a lot more human when the eyes go from being all color like an animals to having the whites show.
    looking forwards to your further thoughts
    -Alonso

  4. Karen JL Says:

    Funny, I was going to comment about acting too before I read the comments! I’ve taken many acting classes too and I tended to be very expressive with my face and hands. As I went through my classes and saw myself (an audition class where we filmed everything), my teacher kept telling me to do less. And less.

    I never needed all that stuff (that came naturally). The camera picks up every little thing (especially in a close-up) and it really is all in the eyes. It got to the point where I was doing ‘nothing’ but it showed ‘everything’…because it was all there in my eyes. It’s really neat to see and was more believable acting.

    I was also thinking about your post when I was watching Finding Nemo over the weekend. Check out Dory’s acting near the end of the film when Marlin is leaving her by herself (that whole sequence where she says “I’m home”). Lots of amazing, subtle stuff there and she’s ALL eyes! Pretty cool.

  5. Kevin Says:

    More really thoughtful comments! Thank you. Alonso, the issue of the whites of the eyes is crucial, though so far I haven’t read to much on that subject. My idea is that it’s in the ‘negative shape’ of the whites of the eyes that we really read what shape the lids are taking (and therefore what mood the person is in) as well as where the person is looking. I think it’s no accident that we can stare into someone’s eyes for a long time and somehow never even notice what color their eyes are. The whites of the eyes provide such a wonderful, high-contrast shape that I think this is what we’re really attending to most of the time.

    Karen, I think some of the Dory animation in Finding Nemo is among the best stuff ever done in CG animation. Now that you mention it, she really is mostly a set of eyes with fins!

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch