What makes Red Bird look so angry?
Everyone knows you can tilt down an eyebrow to make a character look mad, as in the "\ /" emoticon. But sometimes the eyebrow slant doesn’t work as effectively as you would expect. What’s going on?
In my January and February blog posts, I described the "Hot Spots" around the eyes and the mouth, the two facial regions responsible for 90% of the information we use to interpret facial expressions. I discussed how the ocular Hot Spot includes the eyelids, iris and eye whites, as well as the area up to, and including, the eyebrows. Changes in this small region of the face are critical to determining the emotion we detect; as the eyebrow modifies its shape, we modify our interpretation of what that shape means -- but only if the eyebrow is within that limited Hot Spot of the eye.
RULE 1: THE NEUTRAL EYEBROW never falls below an Imaginary Line that grazes the Top of both Eyeballs (UEL)
In Figures 1 and 2 below, I have illustrated the same face with neutral eyes and brows. In Figure 1, I have drawn two blue circles that approximate the location of the eyeballs with a horizontal line grazing their upper limit (which I call the "Upper Eyeball Line" or UEL). Even if we can’t see the entire eyeball, we can infer its location which allows us to implicitly read the emotional clues as the eyebrows move.
You can see that the neutral eyebrow in Figure. 2 is close to the upper edge of the eyeball, but it does not fall either at or below the UEL drawn in Figure 1. This is anatomically determined, as the eyebrow hair only grows on the skin covering the skull region above the eye socket, but the eyebrow never grows in the eye socket itself where the ball is located.
The area of the forehead where the eyebrow can affect the eye expression is very limited; in fact, most of the visible forehead is beyond this active zone. In Figure 3, I have again indicated the location of the eyeballs and the UEL. In Figure 4, the same face illustrates a correctly drawn set of frowning eyebrows, located well above the eye socket, which have no effect on the expression of the rest of the face, eyes included. Our perceptual system is triggered only by information we perceive within the eye’s Hot Spot, and that highly-emotive region ends much closer to the upper edge of the eyeball.
In Figure 6, the slanted eyebrows have been lowered to the point where the inner corner falls just below UEL, as delineated in Figure 5. Our character looks a bit annoyed, or frustrated, or perhaps simply thoughtful - all aspects of a mild frown.
In Figure 8, the eyebrows have been lowered to a level even further below the UEL delineated in Figure 7. This seemingly small change increases the degree of apparent anger. Now the interpretation of “thoughtful” is not plausible; “pissed off” would be a more likely description.
Rule 5: THE EXPRESSION OF THE EYES Can Change the Way We See the Mouth
It turns out that there is no such thing as an angry mouth in isolation. If the eyes are not perceived as angry, there is NO position of the mouth, simply by itself, which will make the whole face look angry. However, a clear anger signal from the eye Hot Spot featuring the lowered brow, as shown in figure 8, has a decisive effect on a mouth shape that might otherwise be ambiguous. The mouth in Fig. 8 now looks compressed and pouting in a hostile way.
Below I have described further examples of successful and unsuccessful eyebrow placement on stylized characters:
Fig. 9 - Successful angry eyebrows;
unnecessary wrinkles on forehead.
SUCCESSFUL: A 13th-century sculptor gets the frowning eyebrows right on Fudō Myō-ō, a wrathful Japanese deity. Note that the inner eyebrow corners are well below the top of eyeball and the crease across the nose is a correct anatomical feature accompanying such a deep frown. However, the horizontal wrinkles in the mid-forehead are merely decorative, having no muscular relationship to the lowering of the brows.
Fig. 10 - Ladybug not nearly as mad as
UNSUCCESSFUL: Even the wizards at Pixar don’t always get it right. Here the down-slanted eyebrows of ladybug Francis hover at, but do not cross, the UEL, and thus the expression of anger is far less effective than it was meant to be. Had the animators moved the eyebrow ridge slightly further down, the result would be a much madder bug. Neutral eyebrows can be found at the same level where these brows are depicted, so it’s not clear that the eyebrows are actively engaged in any expression.
Fig 11 - Two angry guys!
SUCCESSFUL: Sponge Bob and his buddy exhibit two excellent stylized frowns, both clearly demonstrating eyebrows crossing below the top edge of the eyeball. Patrick looks angrier than Sponge Bob, as his brow has descended further, to the level of the iris. The eye shape is also occluded (cut into) by the brow; many stylized characters accomplish a frown simply by depicting the same occlusion while leaving out the actual eyebrow, and the emotional effect is exactly the same. (see also my Dec 15 blog post )
Fig. 12 - Frowing eye-brows hover at top of UEL and effect is ambiguous.
Fig. 13 - Author-modified eyebrows drop well below UEL and reinforce the angry scowl.
UNSUCCESSFFUL: This is not your grandmother's version of Honest Abe!
In the Simpson's version of Lincoln (Figure 12), he does not look nearly as sinister as the author-modified version in Figure 13. Both illustrations show identical down-slanted eyebrow at two different heights on the forehead.
In Figure 12, the eyebrow does not drop below the UEL; in Figure 13, the anger of the lowered eyebrow, combined with the slight smile, gives Honest Abe a highly sinister look.
Fig. 14 - The lowered eyebrow mass effectively transmits Mickey's angry mood.
SUCCESSFUL: Many characters, of which Mickey was perhaps one of the earliest, do not have separate eyebrows which move up and down on their foreheads. Instead, like Mickey here, they have a mobile brow mass with no separate eyebrow, which can occlude the upper eye in various ways, such as the frown in Figure 14.
Everything about this Mickey Mouse pose looks mad - from the dropped eyebrow ridge that distinctively occludes the eyes, to the clenched fists like boxing gloves, to the hunched shoulders, the emotional effect is unmistable. Mickey looks ready to plant a "haymaker" on the next person who crosses his path!