Eye Movements 5 – Flavored Blinks

This will be a shorter post than that on Vanilla Blinks, not because there’s less to say, but because there’s too much. As we saw, there’s a lot of quantifiable information about the generic, spontaneous blinks that we do all the time. Imagine how much could be written about variations on standard blinks!

But instead of trying to write a book, I’m going to point a few things out, post some samples, and leave it to the reader to study the varieties of blink types is the rich reference material we’re surrounded by every day (like, real life, movies, TV, etc.).

There are three basic blink categories: spontaneous, voluntary, and reflex. Hopefully those categories are self-explanatory. Eye Movements 4 was about spontaneous blinks, but regardless of their type, all blinks exhibit a similar pattern. For example, the upper lid accounts for virtually all of the closure, and the closing phase is always much faster than the opening phase. The overall duration of a blink is also very similar among all three types, though spontaneous blinks tend to last slightly longer.

It’s really in the pattern of blinks and in blink variants that we see real variety. By ‘blink variants’ I refer to half blinks, eye lid fluttering, twitches, rapid successions of blinks, and so on. Just as an absence of blinks can show someone is concentrating or angry, the pattern of blinks and blink variants can speak volumes about our character’s internal states. Take this example, from Truffaut’s wonderful The 400 Blows:

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This is a large chunk of a beautifully acted conversation between young Antoine (Jean-Pierre Léaud) and his mother (Claire Maurier). (SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen the film and don’t want to know a key plot point, skip the rest of this paragraph.) Briefly, Antoine has seen his mother with another man. Mother and son have a poor relationship; she never wanted him and mostly ignores him. Now, in an effort to make a pact with him not to say anything to his step-father, she tries to connect with him, and bribe him with the implied promise that she’ll be a bigger part of his life.

Watch the difference in blink rates between the two characters. You don’t need to know the story to know who is anxious and who is skeptical. Nor is it difficult to judge the internal state of the mother, as she gains, then loses, confidence in her little speech. Just watch her eyelids.

I first really noticed this scene when I was rewatching the film with the sound off and while ignoring the subtitles. It amazed me how many blinks and flutters and half-blinks Maurier packs into several of her phrases. It occurred to me that if an animator tried this, they’d be shot down in a, well, in the blink of an eye! Which is a shame, because this is rich territory. Imagine how dead this series of shots would be, being two talking heads, without the contrast in the two character’s eyes, without the huge variety in the rhythm and variety of blinks.

What I don’t see in these shots is much that can be broken down into rules, beyond the ones I described in the last Eye Movement’s post. I think it’s more useful to just study and notice what goes on. Try step framing through this sequence once or twice.

I could easily analyze these shots for hours, there’s so much to see. What’s great is that it’s easy to find similarly excellent scenes where skilled actors reveal themselves in with their eye darts and blinking. Go pick some of your favorite scenes and look just at the eyes, and you’ll see what I mean. Then try to sneak some of that subtlety and nuance into your own animation.

9 Responses to “Eye Movements 5 – Flavored Blinks”

  1. Chris Says:

    Great scene and a lot to learn from. Thanks for the post.

  2. Maciek Gliwa Says:

    Hello Kevin!
    Wow, another very interesting post! I think I never really thought about blinks this way.
    By the way, I created small exercise that I try to do and develop each day. It is the observation exercise. I created a list of small little things that you can observe, for example, hand gestures, or weight shifts or eyebrow movements, eyedarts etc.. Each day I pick ONE thing from the list and try to observe that on everybody I meet that day. Just one small little thing, not more. I found it to be really powerful exercise. Now I have one powerful thing more that I can add to my list and look for it in movies and life observations.

    Thanks again!


  3. DShum Says:

    Thats a really cool scene…..
    Have you always noticed these gems in film?
    I had to watch that clip at least 5-6 times before really appreciating all of that acting in the eyes. I can’t imagine noticing any of that, especially if you’re sucked into the film.

    And I’m glad you brought up half blinks… I’ve always tried to put it in my scenes, but it never looks quite right… Have you seen any half blinks made successfully in an animated film?

  4. Kevin Says:

    Thanks, Chris. Maciek, that’s a great exercise. I’ll have to try that myself. I would recommend keeping a little moleskine or sketchbook, and jotting down notes/sketches to summarize some of your more interesting observations each day. That would be a great way to create a personal database to draw from. Just be sure to also note the situation and personality of the person generating the interesting gesture/expression/etc.

    DShum, I find it almost impossible to notice these kinds of things in good movies the first time through. In this case it was specifically because I’d just watched the whole movie the night before, and I was rewatching part of it with the sound off specifically so I wouldn’t get sucked in to the story. Then it all just jumped out at me. This particular scene was like a little “Aha!” moment.

    If I’m watching something well made, whether animation or live action, I try to just enjoy it and let the film work its magic. Afterwards, if it made a real impression, I’ll try to study it and break down the elements, but even then I sometimes get drawn back into just watching and enjoying. (Of course, if something isn’t well done, then my critical/analytical mind intrudes, and all I can see is all the flaws in technique/acting/etc. It’s a pretty powerful mechanism with me, and there aren’t many films I lose myself in.)

    As for half blinks, we used them in a few places in Terra. Shannon Pytlak in particular squeezed ’em in a few nice scenes. I don’t think I’d used them before that, and I can’t recall seeing them in other animated films (though I’m sure they were there). They’re particularly nice with large eye darts, especially with small head turns. They’re also good when a person is behaving hesitantly. From my observations, the timing of a half blink is virtually identical to the timing of a vanilla blink.

  5. DShum Says:

    Thanks for spending the time to write back, that was very helpful!
    Will check out Terra and practice some blinking 😛
    Thanks Kevin.

  6. Bob Flynn Says:

    Really great thinking and observation. Honestly people spend more time on making mouth’s look convincing, when it’s really a person’s eyes that convey a ton of emotion and personality. Eyes are the focal point of communication, so it makes sense that as animators we should be focusing a lot of attention on the eyes…especially in closeups.

  7. Deepak Says:

    This is really an interesting study. But was wondering, if we need to take in all the blinks that are required in the initial acting reference footage. I had shot a footage for one of my dialog tests. Initially, I tried to take in every blink that was there in the reference, though all the blinks add to the character in the reference footage. But when used in animation, it was like a little too much of blinks happening with in that time frame. So, i had to cut down a few of the blinks. The point that I mean or learnt is that some of the real life footage may not match when animated. Am I right?
    The reference footage can be seen at http://rodentthought.blogspot.com/2009/04/as-u-can-c-dialog2.html

  8. alex vaida Says:

    Hi Kevin,

    Very informative post ! I’ve started acting at AM and I read as much as I can about it. Your post helps me a great deal – thank you very much for writing it.

  9. Jim Says:

    Quite amazing that so much could be derived from blinking. I’m sure CG animators, trying to perfect the human form, commonly run into expository studies on menial movements. I found this while doing a search, curious if anyone else had ever noticed something different about how Connie Nielsen blinks in the movie, “Gladiator”. Like a half-blink. (Odd, I found it alluring)

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch