Eyes are the windows to the soul. There is nothing that can so drastically improve or destroy your animation than how well you direct your character’s eyes. Carefully animated eyes can really sell the impression that these lines or computer generated pixel have a living soul. On the other hand-side rushed imprecise work can destroy the believability of in other respects decent animation.
This article is about making the pupils of your characters properly looking at something or someone and avoiding mistakes that can happen when you align the eyes.
Around the eyes
Usually the pupil rests on the eyelid. This way there is no white from the eyeball showing on at leas one side of the pupil. The actual eyeball is much bigger than what we see from the eye putting the rotation center into the skull.
Only for very strong reactions (from surprise, shock, sickness or craziness) we can see white all around the pupil.
If you need a character to look at the audience during a more “normal” expression you could put him in 3/4 so you have at least one pupil resting on the eyelid.
The eyelids usually move with the pupils e.g. when you look down the upper eyelid comes down too. A lot of 3d rigs with realistic eyelids do this automatically.
In fact you should use the shape of the whole eye area to indicate the direction of the look – and in cartoons you can push this pretty far.
In facial expressions everything is connected to everything else; our skin is highly deformable – and even more so for stylized cartoon characters. Eyelids, pupils, eyebrows, cheeks, the mouth, chin, even the bones, every element in the face can be deformed and used to support not only the overall emotion but also the direction of the eyes.
The form and shape of the pupils highly depends on the style you chose for your animation, but there is some general stuff that is good to know.
The pupils not only indicate the direction of the eyes but can also show the intensity. Big dark pupils feel warm, a stare with lots of iris showing and only a small black dot can be crazy or frightened.
Even if you go super realistic you can stick to this. A romantic candlelight dinner has less light so the pupils widen to let more light in – the eyes appear softer. A criminal being interrogated in a bright like will naturally have a closed iris and the eyes appear very tense.
To give the eyes a very clear direction it can help to make the pupils oval. Realistic eyes do that too. Because of the eyeball’s rotation they are only perfectly round while staring right into the camera. This method is vital for characters with no eyeballs.
As easy this may sound, you have to make sure that the eyes are actually looking at whatever they are looking at. Often in the animation process of redrawing and readjusting they end up being slightly misaligned. Drawing eye-lines helps to see and correct this common mistake.
If two characters hold eye contact correctly you can create a strong connection, the feeling that there are two living creatures with a soul, feelings and thoughts interacting. The way how they look at each other can show and define their attitudes.
But this doesn’t mean your characters have to hold eye contact the whole time. Watch yourself while talking to someone, most of the time our eyes look around and only meet occasionally. Characters that make steady eye contact for more than a few seconds are either going to fight or make love (one of Ed Hook’s acting rules).
Make it unmistakably clear where the character is looking at. And when they look at each other make sure their eye-line really connects. If it is slightly off, it can feel a little disturbing (which you could of course use for mad characters e.g. they could stare at other peoples ears when they talk)
Looking without seeing
The eyes can reveal inner processes of the mind. When they do that they are not focused on anything in the outside world. Allegedly using the short term memory causes us to glance upward. Deeper thinking and thoughts from the long term memory make us look downwards. Sometimes we also stare into the distance seeing something with our inner eye.
Obviously there is a lot more to explore about how to draw and animate eyes and facial expressions in general, which I hope to cover in other articles eventually, but this should be the basics on how to direct your characters eyes. Make sure to check the eye-lines and don’t forget that the whole face can be used to clarify emotions and directions.
Questions about eyes for a future article? Leave a comment below and ask away!