Monday, January 25, 2010

Acting Tools 1) Expressions- the basic expressions

There are many ways to portray emotion - with body language, gestures and movements, (in animation we cheat a lot by using music and staging) but the most obvious tool we have to convey our feelings is the face.

Preston Blair
Animation is far behind live actors and real people when it comes to expressing emotions. We generally rely on the simplest expressions of very basic emotions. Now and then, someone will take an adventure off into more specific acting, but it's rare and difficult. Even if you are like me, and you want to do more specific acting than what is typical of animation, you have to start somewhere. You have to understand what elements make up an expression, and how they are connected to each other.

I actually feel kind of ridiculous explaining expressions that are so simple, so forgive me if some of this stuff is obvious. But it won't be to people who are just learning to draw cartoons.
Generic Expressions that apply to everyone
Pincocchio is obviously a fantastically animated movie; a real classic in every sense, but you can see how simple his facial anatomy and expressions are from this model sheet. Almost every character in the movie has the same construction and makes the same simple expressions.

"Happy" is the most common cartoon expression, after all - cartoons were invented to make us laugh.
Here is about as generic happy as you can get: The mouth goes up at the sides of the face and pushes the cheeks up with it. The eyes are wide open.

Here is a slightly more specific happy. Mickey's eyes are slanted towards each other at the top (more typical of a sad expression). Note that his head shape is mirroring the eye shapes. It is squeezing at the top, as if the eyes can change the shape of your skull to match your expression. This couldn't happen in real life, but it is an effective cartoon tool.

In cartoons, even the clothes can make expressions or add to them, but we'll talk about that when I find some examples.Here Mickey is squashing and stretching the sides of his face and head alternately to "keep him alive". It varies his generic happy expression slightly.

All these characters are broadly following the basic formula for happy.
Some characters, who have odd constructions not built for human expressions still are able to mold their anatomy into the general expressions in the same way.
Beaks are hard in real life, but we bend them into human-like forms so we can give all animals emotions.
Sad is made by the eyebrows pulling up in the middle of the face, and drooping down on the sides.

The eyebrows pull the eyes with them into similar shapes.

The mouth droops down at the sides.

Scared is similar to sad but with eyes and mouth wider.

"Mad" is mostly defined visually by the eyebrows. They point down in the middle of the face.
The mouth is in a frown position; the sides of it pointing down - the opposite of the eyebrows.

"Take" or Surprise
A "take" is what you do when you are surprised. It's an instant reaction of shock. Your eyes open wide, and you tend to open your mouth too. This can be subtle or taken to extremes.


The Basic Elements Of Expressions
Expressions are made up of basically 4 elements.
1 Eyes
2 Eyebrows
Betty's expression here is almost neutral. Her mouth isn't doing anything and her eyes are barely doing anything. The eyebrows, more than the other elements are causing her expression. They are telling us she is worried, because they are high in the centre of her face and low at the sides. This is the same position of a sad face-but without the sad mouth.

3 Mouth
4 Cheeks
Your cheeks don't cause expressions, but they react to them. The mouth is the instigator. If the mouth smiles and moves up at the sides, it pushes the cheeks up with them and squeezes them together and puffs them out.

If the mouth frowns, it pulls the cheeks down with it.
Understand the Construction Of Expressions
I don't think it's enough to know just what the individual elements of an expression are. You need to know how they relate to each other. When one moves, it pushes or pulls everything else around it. All your expression elements are attached to each other. Your eyebrows are on your skin, your eyes are in your skull, your mouth is a hole that is surrounded by lip muscles that connect to the cheek muscles. And all these elements not only connect to each other and affect each others' positions when they move; they also have to wrap around the shape of the individual character's head. This is all so complicated that it explains why animated characters are generally simply constructed - like Mickey Mouse. The more complicated the shape of a head the more it magnifies the problems of wrapping an expression around it.

Beaky Buzzard here is a more difficult construction than Donald Duck, and Rod Scribner has drawn a lot of extra details to add to his expression, but he has used construction, facial mechanics and solid drawing to make it all make sense. He already understands the basics and has moved on from there.

This Chuck Jones Bugs Bunny expressions is very well constructed. Bugs is mad or stern.
His eyebrows point down in the middle of his face. The eyebrow wrinkles react to the main action of the eyebrows.
His mouth is pulled down at the sides-and in turn, pulls the cheeks down with it.
Compare that to this sloppy Woody Woodpecker drawing. The expressions of Woody and the Owl are clear. The individual elements of the expression are operating-but they aren't connected to each other.

Here is a scene of mine that is full of very specific custom-tailored expressions, none of them pure emotions or stock. Yet, they are all constructed. Them main elements of each expression tell the story, but all the flesh around them is pulled and pushed along with the eyebrows, mouth and eyes.

The Hanna Barbera drawing style is instantly recognizable by the "beard line" - like on Fred Flintstone or Ranger Smith. That beard line can be used as the upper cheek line, and will be pushed or pulled by the action of the mouth shapes. It is a slave to the expression. Always look at the space between the edge of the mouth and the outside cheek line. Does that shape make sense?

In the drawing above, Yogi's eyes are "cheated". They purposely are doing something that doesn't make sense. They are drawn above the hat. This is an ode to the original Ed Benedict design. Ed designed Yogi with one eye that sticks up over the hat. The rest of him makes sense. If nothing made sense, like many of today's TV cartoons, you lose control over your drawings and you lose control over the emotional efect you want to convey to the audience.
These are very difficult specific expressions and they are tailored to the voice track. They aren't useful again for other characters and other situations. You can study in general how they work, but I wouldn't use them for another cartoon.
Combining Two Layers Of Expressions

Wile E. Coyote is happy here- denoted by the mouth shape, but his eyebrows point down, like a mad expression. Together they make "evil-happy". Once you have mastered the most general "one-emotion" expressions, you can start mixing elements of different expressions to get slightly more complex attitudes.

The coyote drawing is even more impressive when you think of how complex his construction is. Don't try this at home.
Specific Expressions:

Specific expressions are expressions that are more complex than the simple basic expressions. They are harder to describe in one word.
Variations of General Expressions that are Specific To The Cartoonist (His style)Some animators have expressions - or their own stylistic variations on the basic expressions.

Physically Impossible Expressions

One thing that animation and cartoons can do that real people can't is make impossible expressions. These would be limitless. Here's a famous one specific to Chuck Jones.
Note that even though your eyes can't actually join in the center, these are still drawn with hierarchy and construction.

Overused "Animation Expressions"

Over many decades, we have accumulated a handful of expressions that are not general to real people, but that have become general to animation. You see them all the time.
They are stock animation expressions. The most common one today is probably 'TUDE. Stock animation expressions are fallbacks. They are automatically used when an animator is not actually thinking in terms of the characters having actual specific personalities. They are so ingrained in the animation world that most animators, even really good ones don't even realize they are relying on these instant formulas.

Animation formulaic acting (not the general emotions and expressions that are common to us all) is a poison in our art from. It's holding us back and I would love to see the next generation of animators be able to recognize it for what it is, and then bury it for good.

I think that if animation is to grow to the next level, this is a problem that finally has to be addressed - and gotten rid of. Animators, if we want to be thought of as "actors with a pencil" have to break out of simple formulas and start studying real people and good live actors who have an infinite amount of very specific expressions, tailored to the character, the situation and the instant.

If you wanna see some really sophisticated acting that would be impossible to draw, let alone animate with the meagre tools we avail ourselves of today, watch Edward G. Robinson in this clip from "Two Seconds":

Robinson uses all the tools that make up acting: gestures, voice control, body language, expressions - and he uses them with amazing variation and structure. This kind of acting can give you chills.


Matías B. said...

Amazing and brilliant. Love to pass by and read your posts, almost daily!

Elana Pritchard said...

Very helpful and informative post John. Thank you.

The more I learn about this stuff the more I don't know!

The Butcher said...

There's a generic expression that seems to be favored in the world of anime. The sinister smile. It's just mad and happy at the same time. I really wish anime/manga artists would come up with another expression to define the evil or badass character.

I'd like to see some of your psuedo anime with expressions not seen in anime. That would be very interesting.

Isaac said...

The Jetsons are really angular, and their faces don't fit on their heads. Why is that?

Cristian Avendaño said...

Thanks for this great post! Most of my drawings used to suffer from the 'tude face. No idea why... I blame the 90's cartoons with which I grew up. I've let it go, thankfully.
Willie Coyote is really hard to draw, I've tried a few times and it just baffles me how clumsy I'm still are when it comes to classic Warner characters.

Oh, Butcher, about anime, I think that FLCL and other Gainax stuff have very specific and well made expressions from time to time. In general, the anime industry isn't that good dealing with off-model expressions, but a lot of manga artists use them. I guess japanese and western animators have similar restrictions when drawing stuff for a mainstream tv show.

Chuey said...

Awesome John K!! This is a great refresher from my animation classes! Thanks!

RooniMan said...

That clip of "Two Seconds" chilled my bones! This kind of acting can teach an animator a thing or two.

Geneva said...

A wonderful post. Thank you, John!

Jon Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jon Baker said...

Great stuff
breaking out some paper..trying to get better.


Paul B said...

Great, very clear, thank John!

I have a couple of questions:

-Are you thinking in doing some posts about noses? Noses are difficult, specially specific human noses.

- When Im doing a caricature, Should I first block the forms, build them?

Leedar said...

This is probably the thing I agree most with John K about. Character animators the world over consistently resort to simple and hackneyed modes of acting, especially facial expressions. Sure, there are exceptions from time to time, but there isn't much of a positive growth trend going on.

Certainly one of the major elements keeping animation from growing up and going to the next level.

Gary Wintle said...

Oh, juicy post.

Thanks for filling my noggin' a bit more, John. This blog's my favourite thing on the internet.

David Germain said...

This post reminds me of something I heard at work recently. At one of our Monday morning meetings, we got a note from the big director/producer of the show saying that we shouldn't use the sad eyes with the happy mouths anymore. I didn't say anything, but I highly disagree with that. Why can't we use sad eyes with happy mouths if the expression calls for it. Heck, I used that combination once in one of my scenes and it worked out pretty good.

I think he needs to see this blog post of yours, John. He'll learn a thing or three.

Herman G said...

Your custom expressions is priceless. that is totally the way to go, and from life like the old masters, since they had no cartoons really to see either. The Combining 2 layers one, makes alot of sense, funny 2. I will be exploring more.
That clip at the end is intense, dont they use that guy for the usual gangster character you know i.e." Yeah See"?

Niki said...

It's too many pictures for my home comp but I saw it at school. Whenever I can't think up a face I just do a happy or sad.

bergsten said...

I've noticed that British actors, especially those trained to be Shakespeareans (redundant, I know) are absolute masters at facial expressions.

One such was Leo McKern (OK, an Australian, but that's close enough). Watch him in Rumpole of the Bailey -- there are scenes where he doesn't utter a word, yet you see a whole story told via dozens of distinct facial emotions fleeting across his face in just a few seconds.

Same with John Hurt. Christopher Plummer. Richard Harris. Ian McKellen. Jeremy Brett in the Sherlock Holmes series.

You almost have to watch frame by frame to see what's going on.

Gabriele_Gabba said...

Very informative John. I'm doing some layouts now and I find it frustrating that if i want to draw a character with his eyes shut, i can't look at it in the mirror! Hello camera.

I always loved those chuck jones expressions of utter bewilderment at the impending horror. Am i the only one that thought Chuck looked a bit like the Kernal?

David said...

Hey John,

Very interesting post again!

I'm curious what you will think about the expressions in my cartoon short, which will be finished in a couple of weeks! I'll send you an e-mail when it is done!

JoJo said...

This is great! The verbalization of how all these things work in relation to each other is so helpful!

I notice when I make expressions in the mirror my nose can be used as another element to work with the rest of the face. What are your nose theories?

Jonathan Harris said...

That clip is incredible! 2 minutes and 42 seconds on the same shot, just carried by the acting!

cartoonretro said...

With the exceptions of Chuck and Scribner, appeal and specific expressions don't seem to come together in the same drawing very often. Why is that?
It seems that specific expressions often involve more lines on the face- even when Johnny Hart does a specific expression he draws much more lines and detail.
Maybe this is why you rarely see specific expressions on female characters. Ken Duncan is one of the few animators who does great specific acting while keeping the character cute. It actually makes the character more appealing.

The Butcher said...

"Oh, Butcher, about anime, I think that FLCL and other Gainax stuff have very specific and well made expressions from time to time. In general, the anime industry isn't that good dealing with off-model expressions, but a lot of manga artists use them. I guess japanese and western animators have similar restrictions when drawing stuff for a mainstream tv show."

True, it depends on the artist, and yes, usually the animated stuff isn't as true to the comics.

C said...

If I owned an animation studio, I'd fire anyone who drew 'tude.

James Dalby said...

Is it possible to emphasize too much in animation?

JohnK said...

"It seems that specific expressions often involve more lines on the face-"

Hi Shane

I think you can have specific shapes without having extra lines

whatever is appropriate or works

HemlockMan said...

One of Roger Ramjet's Eagles used to walk around with this expression of utter self-serving contempt on his face. As if he were the king of all smart-asses. To this day I can't quite figure out how Jay Ward and his animators pulled that off.

David said...

Ok John. You just blew my head off. I love your blog and I've never commented but, what the hell! Genius!
@Animationmentor I did a alumni class/critique and talked about acting a lot. I saw that there is a predominant style at AM and some of the alumns (as I am one too) were wondering how to we break out of that. One example was showing that people CAN play with or against dialogue. Here's an example:

Here you have Orson Welles and Al Pacino do the same line of dialog but take it in two entirely different directions. And That is Awesome.

I feel the need to share this because even in the CG world the acting tends to all blend together. But this post rocks. Along with Uncle Eddies. THANKS.

David said...

Ok now reading both threads this conversation has me going.

Take this from Uncle Eddie's link by JohnK funny enough:

His changes in expression are mostly so miniscule that they don't add much to what is going on. The few studied expressions seem arbitrary and don't actually match the voice or the words being said. They look like they are just there to keep the scene alive, but are not as well tailored to the meaning of the words as Robinson's are.
Referring to Orson Welles. But back on the animation side - is hyper realism in animation THAT necessary? Remember the hooplah about Avatar getting rid of the animator and Keith Lango saying that's a good thing because of what we could spend on our energies on? Case in point, I think Cloudy with Chance of Meatballs was brilliant in it's acting, because it was stylized and over the top and we don't need so much subtlety that it gets lost. I know this is a big trend is to have really subtle acting in animation so I'm thinking out loud about the topic.

Anonymous said...

HAhah Ive never thought about expressions like that.

I love your Blog John, Very helpful.
Most times more than my college has been.

Im learning heaps. Thanks!

Raff said...

Great lesson! As basic as the expressions are, it shows how key the flexibilities in the face (and the head) are.

John Atkinson said...

This post got me thinkin', so I did an experiment with some Preston Blair stuff. What do you think John?

kurtwil said...

Thanks for the very good information, John. Really helped give a solid foundation for animated character facial acting.

It's fascinating how the same principles work so well with classic animation (and your own and others like you) .vs. the usually lifeless results in nearly all TV series aniamtion.

E.G.Robinson's acting was very powerful. Looks like it's still available in the WB Archive Collection DVD line.

Maybe sometime you might comment on the new CG craze, Performance Capture (actors wearing motion capture suits with video cameras capturing their facial expressions), and good / bad that technology, showcased in AVATAR, poses for animation.

kurtwil said...

David, Performance Capture still goes through the hands of FX artists, many of which have a love for animation.
Sometimes they are asked to "enhance" the captured data and the result can be a stronger performance (Golum in LOTH's a classic example).

Classic animation, pose driven as it is, hasn't worked well for subtle stuff (line pops, jitter) unless the animator's either an exceptional tweener/cleanup artist, has an amazing tweener in their employ, and/or uses computer tweening properly (yes, they can - computers are linear only if animators __let__ them be linear !).

Meanwhile, what the heck's the point of rigidly imitating live action in animation? Other than the inherent single frame motion, are solidly color humans or animals really that interesting to watch? FX can do that with Toon filters/renders applied to real people!

fandumb said...

I'm not able to make impossible expressions, but I can look like a cartoon when I want to. I freaked out my mother and sister at the dinner table one night when I memorised the entire monologue from 'Sven Hoek' and my sister was amazed that for a human, I really can make my face like a cartoon's.