The Eyes Have It – Eye Movements Part 1 (Updated)

This post was originally published in March 2008, at a time when there was surprisingly little information about how to animate the eyes of cartoon characters, in either classic animation books or online. I’m happy to say that’s changed, a lot, and I think this series of blog posts had something to do with that. I’m going to update these posts, with fixed links and some edits and additional thoughts. I hope this is useful, especially for students.

The first time I realized I really didn’t know that much about how to animate eyes and blinks and eye movements was in 2006, while working on an indie sci-fi film Battle for Terra. The film features alien characters with HUGE eyes, which magnified every mistake we made in animation.

I realized the few rules I knew didn’t go nearly far enough. I muddled through that film, but afterwards spent time really watching people, and looking closely at what actors do with their eyes. I also looked up some good video reference, and some actual scientific research. This is the first in a series of posts collecting some of what I’ve learned about animating eyes, eyelids, and eye movements.

First, let’s go back in time, to 1936, the early days of our craft. Check out this clip:

This is from Tex Avery’s The Blow Out. It’s Porky Pig’s first solo cartoon, with animation by a very young animator named Charles Jones. What strikes me is how connected I feel to Porky, despite the crude production values of the cartoon. Compared to other cartoons from 1935-36, there’s real acting going here, where it counts: in the eyes.*

A lot of the animation in this clip is nothing to write home about. Mediocre posing, inconsistent inbetweens, prosaic staging, and mushing timing. Why does it connect, then? It’s Porky’s eyes that are particularly well animated, not his body. There’s real attention to how the eyes convey his feelings and internal thought process. The individual frames and drawings aren’t that impressive, the character design is unsophisticated, the story dated, and so on. But Porky engages us. He becomes a living, breathing character. 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 blah. It’s the eyes that are alive. They demonstrate intelligence, thought, and a range of changing emotions.

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 these principles and rules of thumb are codified in the famous 12 Principles from The Illusion of Life. A lot of what was figured out then related to acting, and how to use gaze direction, blinks, eye darts, lid shapes, and so on to convey thought and feeling. Unfortunately, almost none of this was written down, though it’s clearly there in the best work of Disney and Warner Bros. This is what I want to explore in this series of posts – what’s ‘under the hood’ that powers an animated facial performance and allows the audience to understand, with nothing but the eyes, what a character is thinking and feeling.


*BONUS HISTORY LESSON! The Blow Out was released a year before Daffy Duck was born and four years before Bugs Bunny existed. It was two years before Snow White, a time when Micky Mouse and many cartoon characters had big black dots for eyes, which meant they indicated where there were looking by turning their heads. Except for exaggerated mouth shapes, facial acting barely existed in cartoons. This was true even at Disney, though they were far more advanced in production values and in pantomime body performances (for reference check out the Oscar winners for 1935 and 1936, Three Orphan Kittens and The Country Cousin). This is the era of Bosko and Buddy, which I won’t link to because they’re pretty much unwatchable and I don’t want to bore you. I’m not saying Avery and Jones set a new standard with this humble Porky Pig animation, just that this clip from The Blow Out jumped out and grabbed me as a nice example of a genuine step forward in the animation art-form. Chuck Jones was nothing if not a keen observer of human behavior.



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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch