Eyes 2 (updated) – The Eyes are the Windows to the Soul

I’m continuing to update my series of posts about the importance of correctly animating eyes and eye movement. This is an update of a post from March 17, 2008. It was originally titled “Where we look” because it’s about where the audience is looking, but I wanted to emphasize WHY the audience is looking at the eyes of our characters with the new title.

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. Our eyes are not just for perception – they are the key component of social communication between humans.

In other words, understanding eye direction, eye movements, and lid/brow shapes tells us not only how to animate our characters, but also how to understand (and manipulate) the viewer’s experience. It’s two sides of the same coin. In most acting scenes, the animation involving the eyes is the key to success.

First let’s understand where people look when they’re looking at other people (or animals, or anthropomorphic animals, or anthropomorphic anything). We look at faces. More than that, we look at specific parts of the face – the two eyes and the mouth, the so-called triangle of interest.

Gaze patterns of chimpanzees (top) and humans (bottom)

Click to enlarge the above image if you haven’t yet. Note how humans are much more focused on the eyes, and the part of the face around the eyes (lids and brows), than our close cousins the chimps. The human gaze scan patterns (bottom row) demonstrate the well understood idea that when we look at a face, we focus on the eyes first and foremost, and to a somewhat lesser extent, the lips and nose.


Graph of proportion of time spent on major facial regions

The graph above is from an eye-tracking study in which subjects were attempting to judge which photos of faces were familiar or unfamiliar, and documents the time spent gazing at different facial regions. When we’re ‘reading’ a face, the majority of our gaze time (almost 60%) is spent scanning the eyes. We attend to the nose and mouth much less, and other parts of the face barely at all.

Here’s another example of where the audience looks. This image is a still frame from a chaotic children’s video with two actors and a puppet. Superimposed on the video are the gaze fixation points of audience members, in both circles and a “heat map” (click on the thumbnail to see it better). The circles and bright spots show where the audience was focused at this moment in time. There’s a lot going on in this video, and yet the audience are all looking at the faces, and especially the eyes, of the three characters (even if one character is a hand puppet).

Audience gaze fixation map of a children’s video

If you watch the actual video, you’ll see that the audience spends most of their time scanning from one character’s eyes to another, with a fair amount of attention to the mouth only when a character is speaking.

Why is this? Simply because 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 once spent hours going though my entire library of animation books (about 50 books at the time), as well as my stacks of notes from animation talks and lectures (I have several boxes of these notes), and I could barely find anything on animating eyes, the timing of eye movements and blinks, how to pose the eye lids and brows, etc. Richard Williams’ The Animator’s Survival Kit gives a single page to animating the face after several hundred pages of how to animate human walks. 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. Most animation books don’t even mention this vital subject at all.

The eyes are the windows to the soul. That old cliche couldn’t be more true. What we are trying to do, as animators, is breathe life to these digital puppets. Our goal is not really to make them move believably, but to convey to the audience that these characters have thoughts and feelings. That is overwhelmingly in our character’s eyes. If you want soul-less characters, then don’t pay too much attention to what you do with the eyes.

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. This is something beginning animators frequently lose track of. From seeing those eyes the audience will learn what the character is thinking and feeling. They’ll understand the character’s attitude. They’ll understand what the character is interested in. 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. Sadly, these are typical of poses I’ve seen in first-time attempts at dialog/acting shots. And even if the head posing isn’t this egregious, another common mistake I see from young animators 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. Dramatic body poses can be great, as can snappy, sharp animation. But that’s doesn’t mean you want the audience looking at the top of the character’s head, the bottom of the chin, or an ear. If you want the audience to connect with your character, settle the head down, and let the animation of the eyes carry the load.

This information about where humans look is also crucial when we’re animating our character’s gaze direction. Just as the audience is virtually always looking at your character’s eyes, your character should usually be looking at the eyes of the other characters in the scene, even if those other characters are off screen. Not looking at the tops of their heads, not looking off into space, not looking near the character, but right into one of their eyes. And if the animated character is interacting with several characters who are off screen, pick specific points in your scene where their eye target will return. You can even create locators to stand in for these invisible characters, because the audience will absolutely notice if your character is not being consistent.

We should always be asking ourselves two questions – where should my character be looking (within their animated world), and where is the audience going to be looking (in terms of 2-dimensional screen space)? To do that correctly, we will need to understand some finer points, such as how long does it take to perceive something, how quickly can someone change their focus (audience or animated character), how do we convey emotion with the eyes, how do we convey intensity are interest with the eyes, how do blinks work, and so on. Some of this will be the subject of other posts in this series. For now, just remember that, for the audience it’s all in the eyes.


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The animation and animation-related musings of Kevin Koch