Here’s a handy list I put together originally for the Malaysian artists on the Saladin TV series, then later expanded and updated for the animation teams on the Sherazade TV series - who were spread across India. With so many animators of different backgrounds and skill levels spread across the country - we had to get them on the same page when it came to facial animation.
STAGE EXPRESSIONS CLEARLY
1. Make strong poses (expressions) - animated character expressions are more exaggerated than human expressions.
2. Hold the pose - allow it to change in intensity if the dialog or situation calls for it, but don't change the pose until it is time to go to the next pose.
3. Don't overdo movement on the face - keep the expressions clear and simple. Once you have created an expression hold it while the mouth moves for the dialog.
4. Make sure the poses are different enough to notice the change of expression - the poses should contrast to show the character's thought process at work.
5. Make sure the audience notices the change of expression - don't change an expression during a fast body movement, change it just before or just after the movement.
6. Be careful not to hide expressions behind a big nose, moustache or unfavourable orientation to the camera.
7. Do not let the expression conflict with the dialog. The expression must reflect the emotion in the dialog.
8. Have you created the optimum expression - are all parts of the face working together to relate this one thought - the brows, eyes, eyelids and mouth?
9. Generally avoid symmetrical expressions. A character's personality will come across better with asymmetrical expression quirks such as a curled lip or a raised eyebrow.
10. Remember the face is only one part of the whole - the expression must be captured throughout the whole body.
11. Tilting the head is powerful way to make a pose stronger. Tilting to one side will improve a questioning or curious expression. Tilting forward will improve a stern or serious expression. Tilting back will improve a surprised expression.
12. Tilting the head the wrong way will weaken a pose. For example avoid looking up for a frown. A slight tilt down will make a frown more powerful. A head that tilts down during a smile will change the meaning from a friendly smile to a sinister smile.
13. The duration of an expression change is important - an excitable fast-talking character will change expressions quickly. A sinister devious character might change expressions slowly.
14. The duration of an eye blink is an indicator of emotion. An excited character will blink quickly, a tired or sinister character will blink slower.
15. The thought is slightly ahead of the dialog. So actions (manifestation of thought) will generally precede dialog by a few frames. For example a head-turn will precede accompanying dialog…
16. …and eyeballs move as fast as thoughts - so an eyeball turn will precede the accompanying head turn by a few frames. Eyeballs always lead any change in expression.
THE EYES ARE THE WINDOW TO THE SOUL
17. Use eye blinks on the expression changes, eye direction changes and head turns.
18. Ensure eye direction is accurate. In 3D animation, constraining the eyeballs to the target with a locator may not necessarily give the best result. Use what looks right rather than what is geometrically correct.
19. Eye direction can indicate the thought process: Eyes looking up and to the left or right indicate remembering an event or trying to recall an image or incident.
20. Eyes looking to the left or right indicate recalling something that was said or trying to think of something to say.
21. Eyes looking down to the left or right indicate some internal dialog where an emotion is being held inside, such as embarrassment, sadness or shyness.
22. Eyeball scanning is another way to indicate thinking (life!). When eyeballs look in a direction they seldom stay still for long. Eyeballs will subconsciously scan their subject with a quick small movement to a new position, stop for a while then move again, and so on. Some animators call these 'eye darts'.
23. An exception to the scanning eyeball is for a character who is focussed, driven or in concentration. It is better to hold a stare for this character to create more intensity.
24. The mouth, as well as performing dialog is also an indicator of emotion. Anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness and surprise can all be expressed with the mouth. Avoid symmetrical timing and poses - let one side of the mouth lead the other to resolve to an asymmetrical pose for a more natural look.
25. The position of the brows probably convey more information about an emotion than any other part of the face. Utilise them fully to extract the most emotion out of your character. Avoid symmetry in timing and posing.
EVERYONE IS AN EXPRESSION EXPERT
We humans naturally understand and communicate with expressions. Since we were children we learned to associate certain emotions with certain expressions. In our daily lives as adults we are engaged in a continual dialog of communications of which expressions form an integral part. We are all experts in interpreting expressions. For this reason, even the slightest discrepancy in your facial animation will be noticed by your intuitively expert audience, diminishing the performance. Your own face is the very best resource for experimenting with expressions before committing them into key poses in an animation. Use a mirror to rehearse and try different expressions when working with your dialog track.
By Steve Bristow
Image from Sherazade The Untold Stories, initially developed by Hahn Film.
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