Advanced Skills: Character Animation

In this blog I'm going to be learning and developing my skills at trying out character animation. I haven't done any character animation before and the final film I am working on requires me to do a lot of it. To cut time down I'm going to be looking at emotions and how to recreate them using a rigged model in maya.

The spectrum of emotion is a huge expanse of so many psychological and biochemical impulses. Through emotion we perceive the world around us and in turn how we react to it, whether it be joy and happiness or fear and loathing. Emotion creates an understanding of what's new to us which is why "first impressions are important" because it is an instinctive thing, once something makes you feel bad or disgusted you naturally avoid that person or thing.

Emotions can be scaled down to 6 basic emotions (Anger, Happy, Sad, Excited, Tender and Scared) these obviously then break down into smaller stages of those emotions (there's a difference between loathing someone and being generally miffed.)

Through these stages of emotion you can show different stages of character development or story development in a film or animation. Films use the actors to portray the emotion of the scene they're filming just like an animator uses a model to convey the scenes emotion also. However animating an emotion is much harder than simply acting it out.

Acting out an emotion comes naturally to anyone seeing as once you're born you have to deal with them and control them. Whereas conveying an emotion through an in animate object or a group of pixels is much harder, as it isn't naturally what we are used to. This is just like trying to explain an emotion e.g. how would you describe rage without mentioning synonyms of the same emotion.

With this in mind to get emotions spot on Animators use reference to make their character recreate the best angry face or the best sad face depending on the scene. For the reference Animators can look to other films or to other animations. Usually though they film themselves performing the scene with the acting or just take pictures of themselves conveying the emotion.

Throughout this blog I'm going to be practicing character emotion for the final film I'm working on which is called "Rush Hour". This film puts the main character in a very stressful situation and creates a vacuum of annoyances and restlessness which eventually boil up into a mental breakdown. Added to this is the emotions and actions of the other people cars around our main character. I'm going to take a few emotions from the film and research into their use and portrayal in films and then act them out myself.

Although good reference is key I also have to bare in mind the principles of animation and use those to help me create exaggerated facial poses, to push the character to the limits to make it as entertaining as possible. Saying that not every emotion needs to be handled that way and also it depends on the genre of film too.

In a comedy you don't want to make the emotions seem very serious otherwise you'll lose the audience because they'll lose sight of the funny side and the same applies when conveying emotion in a dramatic scene. This difference in the type of emotion you want to show is shown usually in the same film, for example The Lion King has the comic relief characters Timon and Pumbaa crying for comedic effect and previously having Simba crying at the death of his father.

This difference in scene is crucial to know otherwise you could put a comedic, overacted cry in a scene which really needs a solemn and heart felt one. It differences like this that also effect an animators referencing and how he makes the character act.

Looking at Disney's "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" each individual dwarf showed one certain emotion each, this is great reference for what I aim to achieve in this blog. The movie shows pretty much the principles of how to make a certain emotion seem genuine on an inanimate object or literally a piece of paper with ink on it. The main emotions are all covered as well in the film with namely Happy, Grumpy, etc. which is pretty much the basis of putting emotion into films.

Looking at the character designs of of the Seven Dwarfs its easy to see the the mannerisms needed to bring out the emotion they represent. The characters through their body language as well as their voice, etc. show how well the animators worked on making it clear their personalities came through.

Looking at Happy he has a stereotypical "happy" person persona. In his face you have big chubby cheeks that can be pushed up when he smiles to create a round and warm looking face. His body language is more open and looks to be quite flamboyant and confident which is a sign of someone with a sunny disposition.

Grumpy on the other hand his face has been made to be elongated and scrunched to make him look contorted with his annoyances. The lines in his face are more obvious too, to insensate the brow and his pouted lip. His body language in extreme contrast to Happy is very closed and rigid, this shows his emotion showing through.

Looking at the other two Bashful has a mix of different body language that his face and actions soften his face to make him a warmer character and his body language is quite closed to but not how Grumpy is. Bashfuls body language is more nervous and shy which shows though how he stands (example to the left) he points his feet inwards and also fidgets a lot another piece of body language which shows his shyness.

My final film is a comedy so I'll be looking at comedy films for inspiration into the main emotions conveyed by the main character. Looking at the animatic the main emotion all the way through seems to be frustration which will be easy to reference and quite fun in fact. Another emotion is fear as there is a shot where he gets creeped out/scared of a little girl so it would be fun to try and animate examples of that emotion.

A classic comedy scene showing frustration is in "Bruce Almighty" when Jim Carreys character doesn't get given his promotion:

The transition from his smile to a twitching and grimacing face has great comedic value and suits the sort of action I'm aiming for in my film. I tried acting out the same sort of facial expression and emotion, using that I will then try to animate it as best I can.

This is my attempt at acting the facial expression I hope to achieve in my animation of the rig. This will also give me practice on how to use the many different handles on the character.

This is my brief attempt at recreating my acting, the animation is longer than my acting clip but that's because I added an extra nervous/grimacing face smiling nervously at the end as I thought the little bit of acting there would lead to that facial expression. Looking at what I animated he looks more shocked than freaking out, especially with the way his eyebrows rise up throughout the little scene. This is beneficial though because a shot in the film is his reacting shocked and acting nervous when being stared at creepily by the little girl in the car in front.

To get the breakdown look Jim Carrey managed to get so well the face will have to be more rigid and I think the eyebrows will have to be more angular to show a bit of rage in his face. I'll have a go at seeing if I can shrink the pupils which would add more to the blinding frustration he is facing.

This is the movie poster from "Anger Management" it shows the frustration between the protagonist and his therapist. This is out right frustration which is very comedic but not the sort of frustration I'm looking for.

Although saying that I can use this look for a later part of the film when our final films character finally snaps.  With the rig we are using we'd be able to get great mouth lines and we angle the eyebrows to the extreme so we can push the pose.

This is a quick little edit to the original attempt andI included the angled eyebrows at the end rather than have more worried angled ones. When I first watched it through I thought it looked fine but after a while I realised it made him look more menacing than having a nervous breakdown and trying to keep a calm face.

I'm going to leave frustration behind because it seems to be a bit of a hard emotion to convey so I'll go back to basics and try happiness instead. This seems to be a simple expression to show and has variations too. The variations can run from outright happiness to being proud, each having different looks e.g. Will Smith looking proud in "The Pursuit of Happyness"

The subtle smile and how his eyes lids and eyebrows are subtle but have great effect on how we as the audience perceive his emotion.

Where as in "I Love You Man" Paul Rudd is grinning most of the time and shows genuine happiness. A teeth smile is usually a sign of being really happy whereas a small smirk looks more along the lines of amused or proud (Will Smith) depending on the angle of the lips. If the corners flick up it makes the mouth look more joyful whereas pointing them down or only slightly raising them changes the changes the emotion completely.

I found a very good website that lists various common smiles:

The site lists many different ones ranging from tight lipped to a compulsive smiler where their resting face is in fact a smile anyway. Looking at these I've decided to take a few pictures of myself doing these types of smiles.

I'm starting off by showing my resting face which has naturally a slight smile to it which I haven't noticed before. It looks contented I guess and also quite tight lipped. The following are ones I put on for the camera:

^Tight lipped smile

^Teeth smile


By initially taking examples of these faces on myself I get an understanding of what needs to be where on my face to produce each certain variety of smile. My smile seems to go into my cheeks create creases around the edges of my mouth which would be pretty good to see if I can recreate that using the model.

This is an example of so smiles I just randomly did, some conveyed happiness while others seemed to show mutual respect; a sort of "touche" look. I'm going to attempt and make one or two of these in maya, hopefully the results will be alright.

This is a quite animation of a smirk turning into a full blown smile in reaction to something and then back to a relaxed smile. The full blown smile I think is the better one as the eyebrows are just right as they rise in time with the "reaction" to whatever is going on. Also the wide eyes help show joy as they also exaggerate the pose of the facial expression.

Sadly because of how the model is made and rigged I wasn't able to get the lines I wanted on his face although I was able to push the cheeks so they moved with the rest of his face. Doing this rises them up towards the eyes and bulges out, when people smile that is how the muscle formation moves.

I'm going to attempt crying now because it is used in all sorts of situations from serious acting parts to comedy scenes. Also animated 2d and 3d versions of crying are very different too.

These two examples show how crying is used in a very serious way in order to push the story forward or in the case of up to create backstory. Crying is a powerful sign of emotion that at the right moment on screen can make a huge impact on the film and on an audience.

Above are examples crying from various award ceremonies where all the actors, actresses, etc. are showing happy tears one way or another. Using this as a basis I'm going to see if I can creat a cry and hopefully it'll work (minus the tears).

My test of a cry ended up more of a whimper which is alright, I managed to work out how to move the nostrils for this too. I thought it gave it a cartoony feel rather than a serious scene. The angle of the eyebrows definitely enforces the sadness in the face, this softens the edges to the extreme which isn't usually seen in a face thats angry or happy. For anger to show in the face the eyebrows should angle the opposite way in which to crinkle the bridge of a person's nose.

Throughout this project I have learnt a little more about character animation whereas I had no idea how to do this properly before hand. The use of timing I found had an impact on the emotions, when I first did the whimpering test the timing was much faster than it is now and made the emotion look distorted and weird. By slowing it down the emotion seemed to brew up more rather than instantaneously appearing. The lessons I have learned will be taken on over christmas where the final film will take priority to get shots done ready for when we get back to Ravensbourne after the new year.