on our Animal Friends
The subject of this month’s blog is the appearance of emotion on the face of animals. We have no problem assuming the woman in Figure 1 is either really pissed off, or excellent at pretending to be. But, I don’t have a clue what’s going on with the equally mad-looking cat in Figure 2. It’s one thing to perceive the appearance of anger in the face of an animal, but it’s another to make the leap into that creature’s brain, and come to conclusions about what they might be feeling – if anything - based on their face. Even the experts can’t really go there, and the point is, for our purposes, it doesn’t matter. All we need to know is that no one – and I mean NO ONE – can look at the cat in Figure 2 and not assume that we’re looking at one frustrated feline. It would never occur to us to wonder if the cat’s actual mood has anything to do with its face; in fact, I’m guessing that it’s totally disconnected. What’s critical here is that the similarity of the cat’s eyes and mouth to the human pose of anger makes it impossible for us to see the cat any other way than as irate.
In last month’s blog, I talked about animators creating an almost unlimited range of expressions on the faces of stylized animals. As we know, it doesn’t stretch the audience’s credibility to have a mouse laugh or cry, as long as it’s Mickey, or for a duck to explode with anger, as long as it’s Donald (with his flexible beak.) It makes sense that, if we’re so willing to see any face as expressive, then exaggerated and reinvented animals in cartoons and comic strips can go just about anywhere the artist wants – and they have! Our ability to both accept and identify with cartoon animals has driven audience approval of animated features films, such as “Bambi” and “Dumbo.”
But what about realistic CG animals?
Do animators lose crowd buy-in if they make totally naturalistic muskrats, marmots, and moose smile and scowl in a recognizably-human way? Will the poses seem contrived and even disturbing, making us aware that it’s all trickery and mechanics (a sort of Uncanny Valley for critters)?
Let’s start by looking at some photographs I have gathered from the web with cats and dogs looking sad. I then use these images of emoting animals as my point of departure for manipulating photographs of animal faces with no expression.
This is a very clear-cut case of an animal being able to take a human-like pose. It’s evident from a dog muscle chart just how they can accomplish this: the muscle in play is the corrugator, which they share with humans. (Incidentally, there is a theory that dogs have learned to take on this face as a way of getting the attention and sympathy of their master; it’s not hard to see why it works!)
Expressive pussy cats own the internet. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for pictures of cats with every known human expression, especially sad cats (see Figure 8). I’m not certain what mechanism reshapes the upper lid of these forlorn felines - muscle action, accident of configuration, or Photoshop? There is a “rightness” to these crazy cat images because they tap into our innate perceptual bias that animals should and do express emotions as we do, and it helps that the poses are subtle and seem organic to the structure.
LIONS - from MAGNIFICENT to MISERABLE
It’s fair to conclude that what works for Felix will also be credible for Leo. CG artists thus have permission to manipulate the mouth and eyes of felines of all sizes without fear of striking a false note. I’ve done just that with the photo of a lion's head in Figure 9 below. The magnificent creature looks sad, pensive and thoughtful through a few tweaks of his facial features.
Figure 11. I user-tested my manipulated lion (Figure 10), for its perceived “realism” against an excellent drawing by animal specialist Charles Knight. In spite of my invented expression, 4 out of 5 respondents thought my lion was more realistic. We are extremely forgiving when it comes to wild animals looking human, partly because we have no familiarity with how they express emotion, or what emotions they really have. A powerful bias leads us to expect their faces to look like ours.
Image 1: Photo of woman: no credit found; Image 2: Photo of cat: https://www.buzzfeed.com/samimain/a-compendium-of-tard-the-grumpy-cat-5pfv?utm_term=.bojyzOelPy#.pt9XG6vKlX; Image 3: Photo of dog: http://buzzsharer.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/German-Shepherd-Health.jpg;
Image 4: Drawing of eye by author; Image 5: Photo of dog from "Babe", 1995 Australian-American film directed by Chris Noonan, produced by George Miller http://images6.fanpop.com/image/photos/34700000/Rex-from-Babe-border-collie-34714935-960-522.jpg; Image 6: Photo of coyote: http://taxidermy.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2013/12/coyote-taxidermy-head.jpg; Image 7: Manipulated photo of coyote by author; Image 8: Kitty photos from (top, left): https://uk.animalblog.co/2017/03/29/meet-luhu-cat-always-looks-sad/;
(top, right): http://www.catboxzen.com/sad-zen-cat/; (bottom, left): https://au.pinterest.com/explore/sad-kitty/; (bottom, right): http://www.cutecatpix.com/pictures/sad_cat.htm. Image 9: Photo of lion http://www.baltana.com/animals/lion-eyes-high-definition-wallpaper-20235.html; Image 10: Manipulated photo of lion by author; Image 11: Drawing of lion by American artist, Charles Robert Knight (1874-1953) https://www.slideshare.net/bengio/anim-bn