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?
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.
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?
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.