Saturday, December 13, 2008

Disney Principles 4a - Appeal - 2 - Big Eyes

Archie's Girls Betty and Veronica 10
The actual physical proportions of our eyes compared to our whole bodies is tiny, but the emotional proportions are much different. We communicate emotionally with each other mostly with our eyes. We spend most of our attention looking at other people's eyes.

We like kids, baby animals and pretty girls because they have big eyes and big heads.

The first really appealing cartoons - that really looked like our modern conceptions of cartoons had very big eyes. This made them instantly more appealing than the previous 500 years worth of cartoons, which were really just itchy looking ugly caricatures of reality.

I can admire this kind of drawing for its technical skill but it doesn't attract my eye as quickly as an unrealistic simple, well designed big-eyed, big headed cartoon character. This cartoon from the 1800s is a slight distortion of reality, instead of a complete stylization intended for visual fun and appeal.

Big eyes and big heads are not the only elements that make a cartoon appealing of course, but they are probably the most important elements.

Compare Coal Black above to the Friz Freleng version of the same character. Which one has more instant appeal?
Tiny eyes are a sign of the conservative cartoonist; someone who thinks being too cartoony is not responsible or sensible.Big heads, big eyes = cute
Small eyes, smaller heads = blah...


Big eyes with big pupils tend to be even cuter. Remember Chuck Jones' "big soulful eyes routine"?

Just like your own big dog when he wants attention and love.

Big Expressive Eyes - Even better!

One thing that drew me to Clampett's cartoons so quickly was how appealing they looked. He drew not only bigger eyes than the other directors, but the huge eyes were much more expressive. They suck you in to the characters' feelings more and invite your empathy.

Here's a Clampett Bugs drawn by Bob McKimson. His drawings for Clampett are more appealing than his drawings in his own cartoons.

Small craniums, small eyes not appealing

You'd swear that McKimson actually rebelled on purpose against the accepted visual symbols of appeal.

He drew tiny eyes and really tiny craniums, with big jowls - as if he was predicting Fox News Anchors 50 years before their time.

Low hairlines add to the natural unappeal of small eyes and tiny craniums.

Tiny Pupils Lack Appeal and The Ability To Express Emotion

There is more than 1 school of animation design that fights character emotions by drawing tiny pinpoint eyes. These pinpoints just float around the vacant eye shapes as if they are not actually part of them. They can't bend around the eyes, can't dilate and certainly can't use cartoon license to enhance the appeal and expressibility of the characters.

Cal-Arts animators had a period where they used pin-point pupils. To me this made the characters very cold and unappealing. The animators relied on a handful of Disney eye expressions from the late 70s, but simplified them to the point of - I don't know...coldness. It makes it very hard to get into the characters. You can see it came from Disney, but eliminated what made Disney appealing in the first place. It's Disney without solid drawing or cuteness.

Prime Time Cartoons

Prime time cartoons are theoretically trying to imitate live action sitcoms, yet they eliminate what makes a live action sitcom appealing and involving- the performances of the actors. They do this partly by limiting the amount of expressions the characters can make. Using never changing pinpoint pupils is a guarantee of zombie-like performances.

Of course, big eyes and big heads won't guarantee your drawings will be appealing. They still have to be well-drawn in every other way, but these are 2 obvious traits that help make your characters fun to look at and they help grab people's attention and draw them into the characters' adventures and emotions (if they have any).

And it's not just the SIZE of the eyes that matters. The shape is important too, but I thought I would keep this post on one basic point.


T.E.B. said...

For a second I thought I was on the wrong blog. Holy cow does that muscle monster gets your point across, yeesh!

I know small heads and eyes lack appeal, but does it completely eliminate the ability to express emotion? What about clear silhouettes and poses, are their any examples of small head and eye characters whose body language read clear what they were feeling, without relying on stock poses?

Yeah, I went a bit off topic there. Glad to be reading more on appeal!

Hans Flagon said...

I've always blamed the cal arts stylisms, the bland minimalism, on instructors allowing students a dead simple enough construction that they can actually pump out the drawings to finish a project, how ever bland that might be. And they carry that sensibility throughout the entire course of instruction, deadening any life they came in to the school with.

Kali Fontecchio said...

"Small eyes, smaller heads = blah"

I always wondered why I'm so unappealing, it's my eyes and head. I wish I had a Betty, Veronica, Sody Pop, Coal Black,AUdrey Hepburn head and eyes.

Shawn said...

I love Rod Scribner's eyes the most. He draws the best shapes and the biggest pupils.

Matthew Long said...

Hey John, love the recent posts on appeal, I find it such an elusive part of drawing. As for the eyes, I agree that usually the larger eyes and pupils make the drawing more appealing, but I don't think the situation always calls for it. For instance my favorite Mickey Mouse design is from The Brave Little Tailor which just has button eyes yet still manages to convey a large number of expressions (though mostly through the animation, not the design). I also find the large eyes and pupils don't always work for adult human characters unless they're highly caricatured like those in Coal Black, the Dwarfs in Snow White, Strombolli, and Madam Mim. In contrast Merlin would have been less appealing if he had large eyes behind that big nose of his and would have looked less calculating and much too warm and inviting.

JohnK said...

"I wish I had a Betty, Veronica, Sody Pop, Coal Black,AUdrey Hepburn head and eyes."

you have very cute eyes, silly. Like Shirley MacLain's.

Anonymous said...

I agree on all points, except I think Fat Elmer Fudd is pretty appealing. I loved him in The Wacky Wabbit and Wabbit Twouble, and he's not too bad in the Wabbit Who Came to Supper either.

Geez. That Stewie Griffin "Model Sheet" makes me want to puke. What's wrong with making cute characters? I suppose they're too sissy? But what about cute girl characters?!?

JohnK said...

The Clampett fat Elmer is very appealing because he's drawn so well and has funnier proportions.

Friz' proportions are always too even and uninteresting - with sloppy construction to boot.

Putty CAD said...

Great examples here, they made me chuckle! I never found Family Guy appealing at all, but after watching some of my wifes dvds realised there's a lot of sick humour in it which I like. A cartoon I really can't stand is King of the Hill, it's UGLY and I find the stories and humour rather dull.

I wonder if you can do Polls on here, would be interesting to see which shows appeal to your followers! ;)

Anonymous said...

Point taken!

Mr. Semaj said...

Good observation, although the small eyes doesn't really hinder McKimson's cartoons from being lively on their own.

A cartoon I really can't stand is King of the Hill, it's UGLY and I find the stories and humour rather dull.

See, people like to beat up on Family Guy for x number of reasons. But King of the Hill has had a terrible habit of ignoring/underutilizing half of their cast, making their remaining characters annoying idiots, and sticking to formulaic stories. Every so often, they make feeble attempts to loosen things up, only to clam up again.

It's almost like when you walk into Arlen, TX there are signs saying "NO FUN ALLOWED". :(

oppo said...

Uh oh, Jenny's going to be mad that you dissed Family dog.

Zoran Taylor said...

This post is like a dream come true for me. Big, expressive eyes + understated behavior broken by fits of cartoony hysteria + biting, near-intimidating intelligence = THE HOTTEST GIRL ON THE FACE OF THE EARTH. The closest matches I have found in reality: Christina Ricci and Kat-uh, I mean a girl I went to school with whose name I will respectfully refrain from broadcasting to the world. Ahem. Slipped my mind a minute....

Andrés Sanhueza said...

What's yout opinion about small eyes that are just black ovals, without sclera? Like some Ed Benedict characters, and much others. Does it matter if different characters have different kinds eyes in a same show?

HemlockMan said...

That's really weird how McKimson goes in the opposite direction...and yet...his characters still work. As I've mentioned before, when I was a kid, I only knew that his cartoons were different because I thought of him as "the guy who draws the characters as big-mouths". McKimson does with exaggerated mouths and jowls and vast physical movements what others did via exaggerated eyes and scowls. Thanks for pointing that out.

Zoran Taylor said...

Oppo/Jenny, there are plenty of good things to say about Family Dog. Is it really so painful to admit that the eye designs are a bit cold? You can say that about nearly anything in the last few decades! (BTW, note how much appeal the big pupils in some season 4/5 Simpsons episodes adds. I wish they'd kept them, they made everyone look funnier!)

PCUnfunny said...

"you have very cute eyes, silly. Like Shirley MacLain's."


"BTW, note how much appeal the big pupils in some season 4/5 Simpsons episodes adds. I wish they'd kept them, they made everyone look funnier!)"


"But King of the Hill has had a terrible habit of ignoring/underutilizing half of their cast, making their remaining characters annoying idiots, and sticking to formulaic stories."

That's what exactly what Family Guy does to it's entire cast and stories.

As for Family Dog, I do like that short alot but the designs were lacking.

Jonathan Harris said...

Well, personally I feel the small pupils on the Family Dog were justified, since I think it's meant to look pretty wired and stressed out. I do agree generally though.

Niki said...

I would like to know, is there a way to make the eyes all creepy like that, yet, allow them to process some appeal.

or maybe now I'm going to completely ignore it besides what I do on my own.

I wrote a letter on my opinion of appeal. I think it may be psychological and Disney means 'appeal' as in the largest audience group likes it. so nowadays on appeal I'll ask a teenage girl.

Miss Kali, don't fret! You still have those feminine super powers!

Lucas Nine said...

Ok, then ren is more appealing than stimpy...

Elana Pritchard said...

"They sparkle, they bubble, they're gonna get you in a whole lotta trouble..."

Hey "students"! If you want a place to show your cartoons are working on and have them critiqued by other "students" go to

It will be a good resource if you participate and send stuff in!


WIL said...

"Just like your own big dog when he wants attention and love."

Awwww, you noticed.

You old softy, you!

Raff said...

>> the small pupils on the Family Dog were justified, since I think it's meant to look pretty wired and stressed out <<

On Ren, similar tiny neurotic pupils would be surronded by big pink irises, presumably to offset the scratchy punkness of just having a little dot surrounded by white space.

Any insight on that, John?

Roberto González said...

Hmmm...I generally agree with most of these observations (I have never rationalized this was the reason why Freleng cartoons look less funnier) but I really love the Family Dog designs and their eyes too. They kinda look like Simpson or Family Guy eyes in that model sheet, but as far as I remember they are lively enough when they're animated. And the eyes of the characters were big, and the pupils were more detailed or have this circle around them when the characters went mad or were devastated.

Yeah, the pupils are still a little much like a point...but the pupils (not even the eyes, the eyes are big) are probably the only problem of the design which I find fantastic overall. It's anything but generic.I have always loved the fact that the nose is not attached to the head.

The first short was amazing, I really think it's still Brad Bird's best work.The designs are like "modernized Chuck Jones". There was this guy in the short, the guy who was watching the tv with the family dad during the fart scene. That guy totally looked like a Chuck Jones character from the fifties.

Severin said...

I don't think large eyes and pupils are an absolute must for appeal in all characters. For instance, Popeye wouldn't look any more appealing with larger eyes. His eyes make him look like a simpleton, which makes him both funny and appealing when combined with a funny voice and a cocky attitude.

Although, on a slightly related note, I think it's worth mentioning that smaller pupils can make a character appear intelligent. Leaving lots of white space creates the "alert" feel of a thinking character, which is why so many cartoon villains share this trait. They're always thinking up schemes.

Hans Flagon said...

Say what you want about King of the Hill being idiotic and non-fun, but that is sort of the entire point. Intentionally unappealing conservative. Eddie Cantor they aint.

If you think the characters are unappealing, you should watch Mike Judge doing the voices.

That being said, to bring it back to what John was writing, maybe that could be behind the Bob McKimson stuff. Blowhard peabrains, all jabberjaw, and blustery.Hungry egoi. Another aspect of character is being emphasized.

Alain-Christian said...

So John, when are you going to turn what you do on this blog into a show? I could see it working on Sundance or the learning channel or something. Hell, even Bravo would pick this up.

JohnK said...

"Big eyes and big heads are not the only elements that make a cartoon appealing of course"

Putty CAD said...

"Big eyes and big heads are not the only elements that make a cartoon appealing of course"

I can think of some other things! ;)

oppo said...

Zoran Taylor: I have not actually watched Family Dog. All what I know is that Jenny Lerew is a big fan of it, and she has a blog of her own.

MLP said...

Given that a lot of the humor in McKimson cartoons involved beatings and explosions -- both of which are funnier when the audience feels the recipients deserve harsh treatment -- might McKimson have deliberately limited the characters' appeal to make the rough stuff funnier?

gabriel said...

real dog eyes always looking good to me, they are tiny and have subtle expression but they are more appeal to me than big eyes

PCUnfunny said...

"Big eyes and big heads are not the only elements that make a cartoon appealing of course"

I think when it comes to animals, they should have well designed feet. Maybe it's just mean, but it adds alot

Sodapop said...

I'm with some of the others on this thread. I think the big eyes, big head thing is only right when it's called for. If you're going to characterize someone they might not necessarily gain anything from huge eyes.

Maybe this is one of the few things the Japanese have got right in their anime? :D Large eyes and heads? It depends on the anime style of course...

But in any case...oh yes. I don't think small eyes and craniums are totally without appeal, but too often they're used to be really, really ugly...King of the Hill being one example. Man am I ever going all over the place I'll just settle down now.

Kelly Toon said...


I am reading a fabulous book about dog behavior. Part of it has been explaining what psychologists have deemed the "Aw Factor". It is hardwired into the brains of certain animals, primarily mammals, and among them it is most prevalent in gorillas, chimps, and other primates (including humans), dogs, and any other animal who bears helpless young. The cuteness and charm of these tiny, vulnerable creatures, evolved specifically to make adult creatures melt and stare lovingly into those big eyes. As you mentioned in the previous post on Appeal, the combination of big heads, big eyes, big hands, and little bodies, is pretty much guaranteed to elicit a favorable response in all but the most hardened of hearts.

So from what I understand, the combination of large expressive eyes, beautiful colors, appealing compositing, strong silhouettes, and good construction, generally lead to an appealing cartoon. Is there any way to break from this formula and sill achieve that sought after element?

Thanks for your insightful, enlightening commentary. It has helped me in more ways than I can explain.

OwlyGem said...

wow you pointed out some crucial and helpful facts here! thankyou, ill keep these in mind for future reference!

Will said...

Very interesting article, John. I hadn't noticed it before, but it looks like So White's lips have no outlines. They're just red.

Jeffrey said...

Big eyes and small head. Japan definitely ran with that idea:

pappy d said...

Hey, everybody! Kali's fishing for compliments!

Don't worry, your baby-ness is indelible. You'll be a 60-year-old baby someday.

The Family Dog models were from designs by Tim Burton, who also wrote & boarded the Brad Bird episode.

One thing I know for sure about appeal: A character gets more appealing the more you draw it. You can see it on Ren & Stimpy, too. The best drawing you do of a character is always done for somebody's kid after the premiere.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Oh my goodness John, as usual i'm eating your posts up like mad. These new ones on appeal are certainly interesting and you're really teaching me what most books *cough*disney'sillussionoflife*cough* aren't.

That drawing of bugs and with the 'A okay' fingers on the newspaper is printed and stuck to the wall at my work station. I can't take my eyes off of it. It has to be my favourite drawing of all time!

Various said...

The following examples aren't animated, but what about Quentin Blake's children's book illustrations, George Herriman's "Krazy Kat" and Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes"? They all feature eyes that are very small or even single dots (well, they do most of the time...), and yet are all extremely expressive and appealing.

Ivory-Bell said...

"Small eyes, smaller heads = blah"

I really disagree with this statement. Cute and appealing are not synonymous. Something can be not very cute at all, but it can still be quite appealing.

Also, small eyes and a small cranium can be used in an exaggerated way to create a humorous as well as cute character (Ex: a large well-meaning robot with an overly small head).

I'm a little tired of the generic small head + small eyes formula. This doesn't mean I don't enjoy it. I just wish I saw more variety. To me the movement and the way a character expresses it's emotions is what I consider the most. An incredible array of emotions can be shown though tiny pupils and eyes, body language plays a big part and many tend to forget that.

Ivory-Bell said...

Oh, I forgot to mention two words:

Pen Ward

his characters are extremely appealing to me (and many others) yet his characters mostly have just black dots for eyes as well as relatively small heads.

But a lot of this is based on opinion. Some like small heads, some prefer big heads. It's unfair to stiffly state "big eyes, big heads= appealing , small eyes small head = unappealing".

Unknown said...

John, I am a new visitor (last couple of days)and just wanted to say that you have one of the coolest blogs EVER. You are the man. I will be back often.

Ελληνας said...

Big eyes in cartoons is just a nowadays fashion. Several reasons:

1. A few people try new things and when something works, they stick to it:
a) novel = value,
b) initially it requires a lot of investment,
c) which in turn gives profit.

Then the rest of the people copy and mimic those few innovators (radically thinking is not tαught in school).

2. People still have the illusion that if something works, then this must be the correct and only way to do things.
WRONG: It only works because someone invested enough time and effort to develop this particular style.
So if you invest enough time to develop ANOTHER style, it will work too, equally well!

3. People tend to oversimplify things, making arbitrary generalizations. The matter is qualitative, NOT quantitative.
All things equal, big eyes WON'T give you anything more, because there cannot be "all things equal" in two different styles. With big eyes, you gain something and you loose something else. So in the end, you'll have to use a different style with big eyes to maximize performance and a different one with small, or tiny ones for the same reason.

4. People have the illusion that most today's solutions will remain in use for ever. History proves this too, dramatically wrong. Think about it: How long do you thing this style with big eyes (drawn, CGI or whatever) will last 50, 100, 500 years, for ever?
How many styles have last so long?

5. Of course, if something lasts long enough, it becomes a fashion which attracts more people which adds to the illusion -until someone invents the next radical style which nobody thought of.

There are many more reasons, no time and space to cite them all.

Ελληνας said...

Devoted to big-eyes fans:

Waqas Malik said...

oh no a Family Guy model sheet!!! quickly burn it with fire!!! DX