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It’s All in the Eyes

February 6, 2010

At least 50% of the performance of a character is carried by the eyes. The remaining 50% is carried by words, vocal intonation, posture, make-up, and rhythm.  And if I’m right, an animator must spend most of his time animating the eyes.

Unfortunately, most animators have a tendency to overemphasize gesture to the neglect of the eyes.  The eyes simply become a melodramatic add on to the mundane housekeeping of sustaining eye lines and adding blinks to keep them alive.

We forget that animated characters are performing in the medium of film, and a great deal of character animation is better suited to the stage than the camera.  Good directors use a mise-en-scene that allows the audience access to the character’s eyes.  Eyes are the well of the soul, and they can tell us more about a character than the words coming out of their mouths.

Watch the films of John Houston, John Ford, Robert Altman, Orson Wells, Woody Allen, the Coen Brothers, and most of the other great directors, and focus on the eyes.  They eyes tell the story.  Even David Lean, the great master of the larger-than-life epic understood eyes. the scene in Dr. Zhivago, where Yuri witnesses the Bolshevik army slaughter civilian demonstrators?  What do we remember of that slaughter?  We remember Yuri’s eyes. Lean didn’t show any of  the slaughter. The whole massacre was shown through sound while the audience watched Yuri’s eyes watching it.  This is the brilliance of Lean.  Had he shown a great bloody slaughter with civilians being shot, run through with swords, and trampled  by horses, the impact would have been defused. We needed to see how that scene effected Yuri, because that was the point of the story — the impact it had on Yuri.

Eyes are also a vehicle for subtext and counterpoint. A character’s body performance can be saying one thing, his voice another, and his eyes something altogether different.

We experience this all the time.  For example, when you are talking to someone at a large gathering, you know immediately when you’ve lost them.  They may be agreeing with you and commenting, but you can tell by their eyes that they are thinking of something else, or they’ve seen someone behind you and they would like to end the conversation politely, but then be on their way to see this other person.  Their body and voice are at attention before you, but their eyes betray their departure.

Humans are eye magnets. The first thing we look at when we look at someone are their eyes.  That is the connection we immediately identify with, and it is the connection that we get the most from.  Imagine trying to talk to someone who won’t look you in the eye. It can quickly become infuriating.  We struggle to make the connection with another human without the eyes.

When men see a naked woman, what’s the first thing we look at?  The breasts.  A woman’s breasts are eye-like. They are a pair of concentric circles just as the eyes are.  Scientists tell us that the first things a newborn baby recognizes are concentric circles, mother’s breasts and mother’s eyes.  Concentric circles form a target.  So use that formula to think about the eyes — the target of a characters performance.

Perhaps you’re thinking, of course the eyes are important, but so is gesture.  I’m not denying that at all. But I would remind you of the truth that the eyes lead the gesture. The eyes are the starting point of gesture.  They eyes give way to the thought process, and our thought process precedes our body movement, which interestingly enough, radiates through our body from our eyes.

Imagine a scene where a character who is sitting, will stand up and walk to the door behind him. First, the eye will tip us off the character is about to do something.  The expression would be dictated by the context of the scene.  First his eye turns to look where he wishes to go, then his head begins to turn in the same direction, and as he gets to his feet, his shoulders turn, and that is followed by his torso, then his hips then his legs.  The last thing to follow will be one of the feet.  By the time that last foot catches up, the character’s upper body is already in motion for the next thing.  This is the radiating of thought process.  In animation parlance, one would call it a “successive breaking of the joints,” meaning the body movements do not happen all at once, but in succession from the head down in this example.

A good exercise would be to get two films, one a good film by a good director with good actors, and another film that is simply trash. Watch them both with the sound off and focus on the eyes and the story they are telling.  The bad film will likely have over-the-top, “look at me I’m acting” expressions and give you very little. The good film will be carried by thoughtful, powerful, eyes.

So as you animate, take as much time thinking about the performance of the characters eyes as you do with the performance of the body.  What you will eventually see in your process is that your process of animating the eyes will drive and direct the body performance, and that’s how it should be.

One Comment leave one →
  1. August 1, 2010 6:40 pm

    Wow! That was a very good post, congratulations!
    I really learned a lot. I finally understand why people are fascinated by breasts too, hahahaha. I am starting a stop motion for the first time in my life and this site is really helping. Thanks for your help!

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