Thursday, September 10, 2009

Blinks in Animation

I've been getting some questions about blinks, so I thought I'd reprint this ancient article, first carved into a cave wall way back in November of 2004 in one of our first newsletters, in case some of you hadn't had a chance to see it! Hope it's helpful!

I feel like writing about blinks today. Why? I just saw a commercial on TV (name of product withheld to protect the innocent) starring a character who had a severe blinking problem.

Now, I don't mean the character blinked too much. I don't mean he blinked too fast. I don't mean the character's blinks were too far offset, too slow, or too few.

No, this character was plagued by a disease that has been running rampant through animation (particularly student work, though not AnimationMentor students, of course. Everything they do is perfect and wonderful in every conceivable way... Well, okay, that's not exactly true, but I haven't actually seen it as a problem in the school. Probably because we harp on stuff like this ad nauseum).

Where was I?

Oh yeah, the disease...

Let's call it "Randomblinkitis."

Many animated characters currently living out their lives on demo reels around the world suffer from this terrible disease, causing their blinks to feel random and meaningless. While some characters use their blinks to convey thought process and emotion, these poor Randomblinkitis victims are forced to slog through their daily existence unable to properly communicate their emotions and thoughts to each other, let alone to recruiters around the globe.

It's a tough life for them, folks, so let's do something about it!

See, the medicine for this heartbreaking disease is observation. It's easy to do, and it'll mean so much to your animated characters (and to the recruiters forced to have to try to communicate with your characters!) if you can just take a little time to observe the blinks of your friends, your family, your co-workers, your favorite movie star, and yourself before you start plowing ahead into acting scenes.

Listen, I know about the whole "I just discovered animation a month ago and must do an acting scene IMMEDIATELY!" thing. I know you all want to do acting scenes. I know you think they're the most fun. I know you think they're your ticket into Pixar. And I also know that for some of you, all the "honestly, spending six months practicing basic body mechanics and force will give you far stronger acting scenes than you'll ever be able to do without that foundation" advice in the world isn't going to keep you away from playing with some acting shots...

So, if you absolutely must do some acting shots (or, better yet, are advanced enough to do acting shots properly), then please, give some attention to the eyes of your character.

We've probably all heard people say "90% of acting is in the eyes" or something to that effect. Shoot, some of us have said that ourselves. And I actually think that's true, and is great advice (aside from the fact that if you don't sell the acting with the body first, all the facial stuff in the world isn't going to save your scene), but when you hear that "90% of the acting is in the eyes," I know most people immediately jump to "eye darts" and "eye direction," etc., completely skipping over one of the most essential acting tools you have - the blink.

When I was in school, I was told that "animated characters should always blink every two seconds."

Well, that's just about the worst advice I ever got, other than some advice I recently was given during a trip to Singapore, which was "giant fish eyeballs taste really GREAT," but animation-wise, I think the "blink every two seconds" is probably the worst. Actually, both of those pieces of advice are equally true (or rather, equally completely-and-utterly-untrue!).

Look around. Do you see anyone who is blinking every 2 seconds?! (If you do, please report them to your government, because chances are they are some kind of android spy from Mars or something.) People don't blink on any kind of set time schedule anymore than giant fish eyeballs taste "great" (and for all of you out there who maybe think fish eyeballs DO taste great, probably because you have some kind of steel-reinforced taste buds like the Singaporeans I was with at that restaurant -- which I do admire and am completely jealous of, by the way-- then that's fine to like your giant eyeballs, but just trust me on the blink thing anyway, okay?)

People blink for a reason.

- Blinks are so much more than any kind of physical dry-eye response.
- Blinks are the key to selling many emotions. Fire up some of your favorite films and study the eyes of good actors.
- When do they blink?
- Why?
- What does it feel like?
- How does it make you feel?

Right off the bat, the number of blinks can affect emotion in dramatic ways. Rapid blinks can make a character feel shy, nervous, uncomfortable, relieved, or like they are about to cry. Not blinking at all can feel angry, stoned, dead, or super intense.

Check out Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump when he's meeting his son for the first time. As soon as he realizes it's his son, he stops blinking completely. He's transfixed. Tom Hanks holds back his blinks to communicate the idea that his character is THAT intense about what he's realizing. Then a blink, and boom - he's on to his next emotion, which is guilt. He feels guilty. Shouldn't he have been there to raise his son? Did he do something wrong? The blinks are coming fast and furious now, to indicate his discomfort, his worry. Then a thought occurs to him: "is he slow, like me?" He doesn't say it right away, but you can feel the exact moment that crosses his mind, because suddenly his blinks stop again, and he's back to that intensity, and finally he works up the courage to ask Jenny his big question: "is he smart, or is he...?" Huge eyes, locked on, almost afraid to hear the answer. "He's the smartest in his class." And the blinks are fired back up again, which communicates his relief.

That whole scene is amazing for eye stuff. He even asks "can I go see him?" using only his eyes! Sure, his head moves barely as well, but it's 90% just his eyes, and you totally know exactly what he's saying. He delivers a line without ever opening his mouth. And it feels so real. To me, that's a great scene, and something we should all aspire to in our work.

So your first set of big blink questions is this: "what's my character's emotional state right now? What are they reacting to? How is that making them feel?" And your second set of questions, just as important (if not more so) is this: "well, how do I blink when I feel that way? How do my friends blink when they're in that situation? How did my favorite actor blink in that amazing scene I saw the other day?"

Figure out the emotional state of your character, go observe that emotional state in as true a form as you possible can, and then study the heck out of those eyelids. Better yet, act the scene out over and over and over until you aren't thinking at all about what the actual dialogue lines are anymore, and all you're thinking about is the emotion you are truly making yourself feel, and the context/subtext of the scene, and videotape it, and study it!

OK, so blink frequency (how many) have piles of meaning all on their own, but what about the spacing of when those blinks happen? That's probably kind of random, right?

No way!

A good general rule of thumb is to never animate anything without a reason. Never move ANYTHING on a character unless you know exactly why you're moving it. So if anyone ever tells you to animate something randomly, unless it's the tiniest subtle "add a little 'dirt' to this movement so it feels a little less smooth" type of thing, then you should probably say, "No way!" Unless he's your animation director. Then you probably shouldn't say, "No way." That might be a really bad idea. You should instead say "Right away, no problem!" while you silently think "man, I wish my animation director would take some Animation Mentor classes..."

Where was I? Oh yeah - nothing is random. Well, neither are blinks.

The most important use of a blink is to show thought process. We do blink sometimes just to wet our eyes, and we blink on a rapid head turn, we blink on a major change in eye direction, and all those other "blink rules," but in my opinion the most important time is when we have a change in our thought process. When we're having an idea, or when we're switching from one emotion to another, or when we're realizing something. Those are the gold-mines in terms of blinks - that's when a perfectly placed blink will take a scene from being merely "good" and make it "great."

There's a great book called "In the Blink of An Eye," by Walter Murch, who is an amazing film editor, and a part of that book is about his theory that we blink to edit the film of our lives. We blink throughout the day to cut from one scene to the next to the next to the next. And he uses that theory in his film editing. He looks for when the main character blinks, and often uses that as his cutting point, figuring that it's probably the most natural-feeling place to cut for the audience.

As animators, we can hijack his theory and apply it to our own work and our acting. We can study the same phenomenon that he noticed, and we will all find the same exact result - people blink when their brain shifts from one thing to another, whether it's an emotion or a thought.

Wow. That ended up about 5 times longer than I thought it would.
Sorry, I get all excited about this stuff and can talk about it forever! I'll try to be shorter in the future...
(I keep saying that, don't I?)

Let's see, to recap:

1. Blinks Have Meaning!
2. Skipping a strong foundation in the basics in order to get to acting scenes quicker shoots yourself in the foot.
3. Never animate anything without a reason.
4. Don't say "No way!" to an Animation Director.
5. We blink to cut the "film of our life."

That's five tips for the price of one. I better start being stingier or this'll be a short-lived column!

Hope you found it helpful. See you next time!

Shawn :)


mattanimation said...

I always enjoy your posts Shawn,I love the random tangents you spin off on, it shows the amount of detail a good animator is always processing, keep 'em coming. When are you gonna host another Webinar? Those are always fun.

Virgil said...

but I blink so often... :( in real life... and I'm not an alien, honestly. and many times I don't really need a reason to blink... like now, I'm typing this and I'm blinking (yeah, I understand that sometimes reality and cinematography are not following the same goals...)

Bruno Andrade said...

thanks a ot Shawn, I had already read that article but it's always great to fresh up on those ideas. One good exercice I would recomend to everyone reading this is to just do some head turns, test some blinking ideas, even get a close up on the eyes and work them out, no need to start a complete new performance, just load the rig and test some ideas, then toss the file away, just to learn it and apply it later.

Mahesh said...

Hey ...i'm studying all two volumes of tips and tricks , and i think its 5th article in first volume,
its really helpful, when i was studying it, at the end i felt that , you have taught blinks , then why not study eye brows,eye darts and blinks together?

what do you think ?

Unknown said...

Great revival post ....always reading your posts as if you might have added something new and on reading again & again ,every time I'm getting a clear picture of it. Thanks .!

Animation Mentor Staff said...

Hi, Cloud,

Thanks for the suggestion! Each one of the techniques you mentioned is a powerful tool in an animator’s arsenal. There is nothing wrong with studying them together but you may be overwhelmed by learning all the possibilities of each tool at the same time. Even if you study them together you should know the power of each single control! Try showing a change in a character’s thought process using only blinks. Then try doing the same using just eye darts or eye brows. Once you learn the power of each individual control you can put them together and become an animation ninja!

Animation Mentor Staff

Mahesh said...

Thank you so much,
the students at animation mentor are really fortunate that ,they have such a great mentors,
i'm really feel special that i can communicate with you!!
Thanks ..



hi shawn, this post is really useful,thanks for all your effort to explain such great tool for animation.

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