What we see when we watch

Check out this video — I’ll explain below, but for now just enjoy:

How often do you think about the audience when you’re animating? A lot, hopefully. But when you’re thinking about the audience, do you think about were, exactly, they’ll be looking, from moment to moment, when they watch your scene? On any given frame, can you draw a small circle somewhere on the screen, and confidently say, “They’ll be looking exactly here”? Does that seem like an unanswerable question? In fact it’s not — you should be able to predict, with great precision, exactly where on the screen the majority of the audience will be focused at any moment.

This is crucial information. In our animation we tend to try to impress with broad, entertaining movement, and big dramatic flourishes, without knowing if that’s what the audience is even paying attention to. Fellow animators pay attention to it, and often directors, too. But audiences? Not so much. In fact, it’s easy to frustrate the audience with over-animated scenes that don’t allow them to focus their attention where they instinctively want to. This is one reason some animated films are big hits with the animation community, but fall flat with general audiences.

There are two parts to unlocking the mystery of what, exactly, the audience will be focused upon at any moment. First is the way our visual system works. Even on a small screen, a viewer will only be able to focus on a portion of the screen. Most of any given scene is only appreciated by one’s peripheral vision — fuzzy and desaturated. Only the very center of our visual fields are clear and sharp and full color.

Second, humans all tend to instinctively look at the same things when given options of potential visual targets. Any frame of film has an almost infinite number of things to focus on, and yet humans predictably look at the same stuff again and again. Audiences (or, frankly, humans in general) really like to look at certain things. When multiple interesting things are presented in the same frame, humans have a pattern of what gets visual priority. What’s amazing is how predictable it is. If you misunderstand this, then it’s easy to focus your animation efforts on things that the audience won’t even register.

So what is it that humans like to look at. What visual targets, on screen, have the most drawing power? Is it whatever is closest to camera? The biggest movement? Some facial feature or body part? The mouth of speaking characters? The brightest light? The loudest color? The center of the screen? The above video should make it clear.

This video is from the DIEM Project, which I’ll write more about in a subsequent post. All you need to know is that the ‘heat map’ (the bright spots and little circles on the video) represent where audience member’s focused when watching.  I love this video as a sample, because it’s so cheesy that it’s hard to be caught up in the story and loose track of the eye-target mapping. More importantly, there are a wide range to shot types, from acting closeups to two-shots to action shots, pans, shots with no characters, static shots, and so on.

The number one answer, of course, is the eyes. I mean, it’s in the title of the film above! But more than that, ‘the eyes’ are also in second and third places on the list. Not ‘the face.’ That’s too general. The rest of the face is in fourth place. It’s the eyes/eye brows first and foremost. We are social and visual creatures, and we want to see other human’s eyes. It’s how we know what people are thinking, and feeling, and what they’re interested in, and if they’re a threat to us, and on and on. We’re hardwired for this, and it’s even more pronounced when we watch a film.

If the character’s eyes are blocked, and the character is talking, the audience looks at other parts of the face, especially the mouth.  When a new character comes on screen, the audience’s eyes go right to the new character’s eyes. When multiple characters are on screen, we focus on they eyes of the character speaking. If no one is speaking, we look at the eyes of the character that the other characters are looking at.

When does the audience look elsewhere? When a main character looks in some direction, we look to see what they’re looking at, if it’s on screen. We want to know what they’re interested in. We look at their hands, if their hands are doing something. And once we understand what those hands are doing, we look back to the eyes and face. We take quick glances at anything that makes a big movement, or moves unexpectedly, but we always come back to the eyes. Even when scantily-clad models are fake fighting in the middle of a busy NYC street, and we take quick glances at their underwear to see if there might be something naughty, we still don’t linger on any part of the body except the faces, and especially the eyes.

And when their are no characters on screen, we follow movement in general as the top priority. If there’s little or no movement, we tend to look at the brightest thing on screen, or the biggest color contrast. But those visual elements have only a fraction of the eye-attracting power of eyes. And be careful about mixing faces with lots of on-screen movement — you can easily frustrate the audience by making it hard to read the character’s eyes.

There are more DIEM Project videos I’ll be sharing in coming weeks. I think these videos are fantastically educational, and as animators and visual storytellers we need to keep this information in mind all the time. Unfortunately, our tendency when left to our own devices, or when we’re on a busy production, is to focus too much attention on things that only we, and our fellow animators, really care about (like big showy acting choices). Never lose track of what the audience is really interested in. They want to see the eyes. And in those eyes, they want to see what the character is thinking, and feeling, and seeing. Put your efforts there, and the audience will reward you with their undivided attention.

One Response to “What we see when we watch”

  1. Ivonne Isla Solther Says:

    Fantastic post! Thank you, I always learn tons from you.

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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch