The human face is the most mobile in the animal kingdom, infiltrated with a more complex network of muscles and nerves than any other creature, by far. The repertory of movements that we can create is endless including, for some, wiggling the ears. However, only a very small subset of these movements is significant in the facial expressions of emotion, and even here all of the facial changes that accompany, say, smiling or frowning are not equally important for recognition. Most of our attention is focused on two tiny regions of the face we are pre-programmed to notice – the “hot spots” of the eye and mouth.
Maximize Emotional Impact : LOWER Face "Hot Spots"
Maximize Emotional Impact : UPPER Face "Hot Spots"
The Animator's Challenge: Innovative MOUTH SHAPES
Monster “Mike” Wazowski has one bulging eye, no nose, lips or ears, but his mouth shape is recognizably human.
As animated characters descend down the imagery ladder from realistic to stylized, the design of almost every facial feature can be highly-original and still depict an emotionally-believable creature: head shapes can morph into monsters, robots or teapots; noses can be replaced by a snout or a ball; eyebrows can disappear or hover above the head; eyes can be reduced from two to one… It’s not terribly difficult to create a full range of expressions without an eyebrow, or a nose; even eyes can be elongated into towering ovals with tiny irises and still be read coherently.
But mouths are a different story.
SMILES : For Animators, Less can be More
Notice the gleaming smile on the woman behind the speakers!
Why do stylized expressions work so well? The whole world laughs along with Mickey Mouse, and grins along with Bugs Bunny and Tweety Bird, even though their faces are visually a long ways from their human counterparts. We immediately and unambiguously identify with their emotions, and relate to them as though they were flesh-and-blood actors. Small children "get it," as well as octogenarians.
The Stylized SMILE : Mouth Shapes that Work
Joy, in its many degrees, is by far the most complex and interesting facial expression.
As many artists have discovered, the smile is quite difficult to render and can come with an almost unlimited degree of nuance. Realistic smiles, in particular, which are judged in terms of sincerity and inflection, require an understanding of how to depict tiny differences in detail.
FACES in PLACES : The "Pareidolia Effect"
It’s impossible to look at these seaside binoculars and NOT see a face. Our brains have evolved to detect faces in our environment – vital for survival purposes – even when our rational selves knows that what we are responding to is very unlikely to be alive. When we are presented with the minimum facial pattern of two spots above and one spot below, we not only see a face, we assume, as above, that the face is the expression of a sentient being which carries with it a corresponding emotional state; here, a sort of giddy happiness.
Eyes WIDE OPEN all the time : Pros + Cons
The origin of the Hyper-Alert Eye (the stylized character pose where the upper eyelid is continually raised) is ultimately based on the human face. Under certain circumstances when we are both happy and excited (look at the faces of major league athletes who have just made a game-winning hit), the smiling mouth is accompanied by eyes with lots of white above the iris, the result of super-abundant emotional and physical energy.
In my book, I classify this expression as the Eager Smile (top, left). Whatever name you give it, this particular pose has inspired thousands of cartoon versions, where artists have found the smile/wide eye pattern to be highly effective in creating character appeal. It has been a popular animator’s strategy for decades, with Bugs Bunny (top, center) and Mickey Mouse, the pioneers, and Woody (top, right), a more recent and very successful successor.
Your SKETCHBOOK is your Critical Visualization Tool
Drawing on my imagination, I create pictures of expressive faces in a multitude of scenarios.
I recently read this wall text at the National Gallery in London about two extraordinarily-accomplished 19th c. French painters: "Degas met Ingres in his youth and was told by him to 'draw lines, young man, and still more lines, both from life and from memory.'"
I agree. Drawing in a sketchbook provides an immediate, and satisfying, medium for recording the world, and for experimenting with new pictorial ideas. For me, I like to draw people in railroad stations, cafes and in parks; I like to imagine people I have never met and to animate their faces with lively or deadpan expressions; I also like to use my sketchbook to invent places that have never existed, but which might make good subjects for a more finished drawing or painting.
Eyes WIDE OPEN : Demented vs. Cute
Stylized faces resemble their human counterparts, but the rules that we use to analyze them are very different.
In this mug shot of a convicted mass murderer, the Hyper-Alert Eye is disturbing and demented-looking; hardly cute and appealing like the matching expression on the face of Tweety, a beloved stylized character. The essential elements are the same in both faces: hyper-alert eyes (upper lid raised above the iris), slight smile with pursed lips, raised eyebrows and eyes slightly out of alignment (staring off into the distance). But our emotional response couldn’t be more different.
Photo Personifies GRIEF of Dallas Police Shootings
Slate Magazine ran a collage of front pages from different newspapers featuring an identical photograph, under the headline, “The Intern Who Took the Defining Photograph of the Dallas Shooting”. Out of the thousands of images coming from this tragic news event, what made this photo of a grief-stricken police officer comforting a colleague "the Defining Photograph?” Is Slate even right?
FAIGIN FACE BLOG
So many faces. So many ways to express emotions. Faigin examines facial expressions in movie stills, cartoons, fine art, illustrations and photographs and shares his insightful analyses in his monthly blog.