The eyes have it

Monday 23 October 2023

When it comes to interpreting emotions, the eyes are vital. As a human being, trained in social understanding, the movement, shape, and intensity of eyeballs can convey innate insights that words and actions cannot express.

Capturing the humble peeper on screen is of utmost importance to filmmakers, and nowhere is it more challenging than in animation.

To delve deeper into this demanding aspect of animation, we interviewed five experts in the field - Marylou Mao, Lead Animator at Nexus StudiosMagdalena Osinska, Director at AardmanJack Anderson, Creative Director at PsyopJon Burke, Animation Supervisor at Framestore; and Charles Bigeast, Creative Director at Golden Wolf - to find out the process, intricacies and insights needed to get a glance right in all forms of animation, from photorealistic CGI to hand-drawn anime.

Jon Burke - Animation Supervisor, Framestore

"The eyes play a pivotal role in directing our focus in life and storytelling. Utilizing a character's eyes effectively is crucial for guiding the audience's attention within a scene.

Two key considerations come to mind when crafting a shot: when to draw attention to the character's eyes and when to divert it. Strategic eye breaks are essential for keeping the audience engaged and creating anticipation. It's vital to envision the entire scene and incorporate these eye breaks; otherwise, the character may appear unnaturally fixated. Subtle glances away and back add depth and nuance to the shot.

Strategic eye breaks are essential for keeping the audience engaged and creating anticipation.

This philosophy of eye movement extends to many aspects of storytelling. For example, a character's continuous smile throughout a scene lacks the impact of an initial serious expression transforming into a smile. This triggers a cognitive response within the viewer, highlighting the shift in mood and facial expression.

The Geico Gecko spot, 24 Hour Claims, is a perfect example of how eye movement can infuse a scene with texture. The scene begins with the gecko looking forward, drawing the audience in, and then shifts away, naturally portraying his inner thoughts through the subtle dance of his eyes. The intensity builds as he eventually gazes back at the woman, providing a reassuring connection. The contrast in this shot between him holding eye contact and breaking it is perfectly balanced, creating anticipation in the viewer, who eagerly waits for him to return his gaze.

Capturing the staccato rhythm [of eyes] in animation is difficult, as most artists' instinct is to smooth things out. 

Animating eyes presents a unique challenge as real-life eye movements are often jittery, with muscles firing rapidly. Capturing this staccato rhythm in animation is difficult, as most artists aim to smooth things out. There are many micro, close-up references that an artist can study to perfect the craft of animating eyes for the characters that they create. Pupil dilation and how our eyes react to lighting are often underestimated but can add depth and emotion to a shot.

Another aspect to consider is seamlessly integrating animated characters into live-action shots, often interacting with real actors. Ensuring that the interaction appears genuine and that eye lines match is essential. Without a clearly defined eye line, the character can feel disconnected, detracting from the audience's immersion in the scene."

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