Aug 30, 2012

A Day At Wrigley

Spending the afternoon with my dad in seats on the away team dugout at Wrigley. Not a bad Thursday.

Aug 29, 2012

The Importance of Eyes

One of the most important things that I've learned, which applies to all forms of character art, is the utter necessity of eyes.  Whether it's character design, animation, or puppetry, how the eyes are shaped/colored/arranged can alter your work dramatically.

I've been thinking about it recently because I saw a video on YouTube that someone put up of a puppet they had made.  While overall the design was good, one major thing stood out to me: the puppet felt dead.  Even when the puppeteer was giving him movement and voice and character, there was still something disconcerting about it.  And I realized that it was the eyes.  They weren't looking at anything.  They were just staring ahead, mindlessly.  The designer had clearly not thought about how important the eyes are to creating a believable, living character.

Eyes are possibly the most central character trait, for many reasons, and here they are (according to me).


Before I go into any other aspect of eyes, I will start with the most basic one: they enable sight.  That is a 'duh' statement, but it should still be mentioned, because everything else flows from that simple fact.  On the most fundamental level, if your character's eyes aren't allowing him/her/it to see, and if they aren't making it clear that your character has the ability to see, you're doing it wrong.

One exception to this principle (besides blindness), is characters that don't have visible eyes.  Instead, they're given the suggestion of eyes.  Usually, that accomplishes some kind of character trait.  For example, Beetle Bailey is an 'eyeless' character.  That design expresses one of his core characteristics: he's lazy.

A similar character is J. Wellington Wimpy, Popeye's friend.  He is bright but lazy, and his slothful nature comes through by always having his eyes closed, as if it would be too much work to open them.

In the live-action world, you can see it in classic Muppets, like Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, Janice, and the Swedish Chef.  Each of these characters has no eyes for a reason.  Bunsen has the suggestion of eyes by only having glasses.  This seems to emphasize how much of a 'scientist' he really is.  He has such bad vision that his eyes aren't even visible, which plays into the entire nerd persona.  Also, it sets him up as a foil for Beaker, who is designed with huge eyes.  The viewer is left with the comedic setup of Bunsen as calm and scientific and Beaker as constantly freaking out.  Something has to go wrong (and it always does)!

For the Swedish Chef, you have bushy eyebrows instead of eyes.  This causes you to focus less on his face and more on his hands, where all the action really is.  For Janice, it emphasizes her clueless Valley Girl persona, by having heavily shadowed eyelids and long lashes.


Barring that exception, your characters eyes are, in many ways, the most important part.  That is because, as humans, the first place we look when we meet someone or something new is the eyes.  I'm sure there are scientific reasons for that, but my only care here is that it's what we do.  We can then figure out immediately whether someone is friendly or angry, whether someone is nervous or confident, whether someone is paying attention to you or to something else, and a whole host of other things.

The very first thing we notice is whether someone is paying attention or not.  Everyone has experienced someone else zoning out while you're talking.  Their eyes go glassy, and they lose focus.

"No, please.  Tell me more about your cat."

FOCUS indicates that a character is viewing something.  Focus brings life to a character.  Focus makes your character believable.

This principle was used effectively by Pixar in Toy Story.  When we first meet Buzz Lightyear, he is still in 'hypersleep,' and his eyes face straight ahead, focused on nothing, which is just how most action figures are designed.  When he comes to, he blinks a few times, then his eyes focus.  He looks around, and you realize that he's not just plastic--he's a sentient being.

You can also see where lack of focus harms a character's believability.  My favorite example is the early Fozzie Bear.  Fozzie is a great character.  However, his earliest design has (in my opinion) one major flaw, which is his out-of-focus eyes.  The Fozzie from the early Muppet Show days always looks like he's not looking at anything, because his pupils are smack in the middle of his eyes.  It removes a bit of his character's believability and makes him come across as a dimwitted dunce instead of a lovable, but terrible, comedian.

Luckily, later designs of Fozzie have fixed that.  He still has that great, surprised Muppet-eye look, but he now appears to be focusing on something.  He's much more believable--more alive--that way.


Good question!  That's one of the simplest solutions to a problem I see in many, many drawings and puppets.

The solution?  If the character is looking straight ahead, put the pupils slightly inward (slightly cross-eyed) and slightly down (toward the nose).  This will take your character from looking like this:

to this:

See how big a difference that makes?


The pupil is, visually, the dark circle in the middle of the eye.  It's what gives us a sense of where someone is looking.  Biologically, the pupil is the opening that allows light to enter the eye.  The light, like a projector, shoots onto our retina (interestingly enough, upside down).  That information is then sent to our brains, which switch the image around and give us an image that we see.

The pupil also protects the eye, though, by limiting how much light can come in.  If too much entered, it could injure the retina.  Also, like in photography, it would overexpose the image our brains process, resulting in a lot of white, and little definition.  If too little light entered, there wouldn't be enough for you to make out what you see (like what happens in a pitch-black room).

So, when there is a lot of light, your pupil constricts (gets smaller), and when there is little light, your pupil dilates (gets bigger).  Here's a video demonstrating it:

All of this becomes important when you consider how the eye changes, based on emotions.  The most common example is with a surprised person.  When you are surprised, your eyebrows pop up, opening your eyes wide (making your pupil look relatively smaller, with more white space around), and constricting your pupil because of the extra light.  Therefore, a surprised character usually has small pupils and lots of white around, like this:

Pupils can come in all sorts of shapes, too.  While humans (and most cartoons) have circular pupils, other animals don't.  Cats, of course, have thin slits for pupils (and the difference between a cat's eyes at night and during the day are dramatic):

Horses, sheep, and goats all have horizontal pupils, which is kind of weird looking:

Then, of course, there's our good friend Kermit, who has the interesting frog-eyes, which are modified from the frog's actual football-shaped pupils and dark band across the eyes:


Shape, color, and size of eyes will also play a huge roll in the design of a character.

Shape is something that could be talked about for a long, long time, because there are simply so many different ways you could go.  Here are a few examples (one sheet I did up very quickly, and a few from the interwebs):

Some different aspects to think about when it comes to shape: rounded lends to being more cartoony.  Football-shaped is more realistic.  Adding an iris (the colored circle around the pupil) adds a bit of realism as well.  Heavy lids lend to more sexy, seductive eyes (if they go with lashes or a smarm brow); they can also show sleepy or lazy characters.  When angled downward/inward, a character appears perpetually angry or perturbed.  When angled outward, a character appears perpetually sad or tired.  Those are just some ideas--play around!

Color is similar.  While generally we see white eyes with black pupils, there's no reason we can't do something different.  Pupils can be any color: blue, purple, or green all denote calmness.  Red or orange indicate a character is angry or possessed.

Size becomes majorly important as well, and you can see how size is the predominant identifying factor for various styles.  Generally, the bigger the eyes (and pupils), the cuter and younger the character.

A surprising example of this is South Park, which has a distinct style difference between kindergarteners and fourth-graders.  You can see how much bigger the young eyes are, relative to the size of the head, than the older eyes.

Disney, of course, has mastered the big-eyed, adorable look, with characters like Bambi.

In the world of puppetry, the Muppet style reigns supreme, with big, round eyes and big mouths:


All this is to say: be aware of the importance of eyes.  Make sure that the size, shape, and color fit with who your character is.  Make sure that the placement of the pupils makes your character look alive.  And make sure that you have fun in the process.

*P.S. Some characters (Calvin from Calvin & Hobbes, Tintin, Charlie Brown, etc.) only have dots for eyes.  When that is the case, the direction of the head and the shape of the eyebrows become hugely important for conveying who/what the character is looking at.  Or, you could use a hybrid approach.  For Calvin, Bill Watterson would turn his eyes into more realistic shapes as he needed, which was very effective:

Aug 28, 2012

"My Peoples": The Disney Movie That Almost Was

In late November 2003, I was rather busy putting together college applications, which were due on the first day of the new year.  So focused was I, as a college senior, on essays, SAT scores, and recommendations, that I didn't even notice the seismic changes that were happening at the Walt Disney Feature Animation (WDFA) studios in Orlando.

I've written before about my obsession with that studio as a kid.  Having gone to Disney World in second grade and seen the animators at work on The Lion King is still one of the highlights of my life.  Later trips gave me a chance to see some work done on Tarzan, Mulan, and The Emperor's New Groove.

However, there was another film in production at that time, which sought to recapture the older feel of the early Disney films.  It was a simple and sweet story about a boy and girl in the hills of 1940's Appalachia entitled "My Peoples."

Copyright Disney Enterprises, Inc.  All rights reserved.

The idea originally came in the mid- or late nineties from the mind of Barry Cook, as a retelling of the short story "The Ghost & His Gift", itself a retelling of Oscar Wilde's short story "The Canterville Ghost", but infused with the music, culture, and lore of Cook's native Appalachia.

Cook had already worked at Disney for almost twenty years, on films as varied as Tron (an effects animator) and Mulan (as a co-director).  In fact, it was the success of Mulan, the first real animated 'hit' since The Lion King, that gave Cook the chance to figure out his next film.  After working for five straight years with barely a break, he took a five month sabbatical, figuring what he would do next.

"My Peoples" was the result of that time (Cook had actually had the earliest ideas for the story years before, but had shelved it).  The film was pitched as a low-cost, simple movie, similar--production-wise--to Dumbo, which had been made very cheaply by Walt Disney during World War II, when many of his artists and animators were off fighting.  Cook proposed making the film for $45 million (that's cheap??), which was the cost of The Lion King, a film that brought in over $700 million.

The story was about a man, Elgin, and his love interest, Rose, being united by a gaggle of children, and it was liked by both Disney CEO Michael Eisner and head of Feature Animation Thomas Schumacher.  However, they felt that, as it had been pitched, the story didn't need to be animated; it could be done more cheaply and easily as a live-action feature.

So, Cook went back and tried to figure out what could make his story less "human" and more likely to get the nod as an animated feature.

What he discovered was a long history within the Appalachian Mountains of folk dolls, made from everyday items by people in rural areas.  Cook even found that his own grandmother had made a few.  He asked himself what would happen if these dolls came to life.  Then he realized he had the makings of an animated film.

The children in the original story were jettisoned and replaced by a series of folk dolls.  The story was revised as well, into a (somewhat convoluted) Romeo & Juliet story.  As AnimatedViews explained, "My Peoples" became:

...the story of Elgin Harper, a young man who makes the folk art doll Angel out of a flour scoop as a gift to woo Rose McGee. Unfortunately for Elgin, Rose happens to be from a family feuding with his own. Nonetheless, the young man decides no feud can quench his love, determining to deliver Angel to Rose. But a spell from Rose’s father, Old Man McGee, backfires, bringing Angel to life. And Angel, as it turns out, does not want to do her job; she has no desire to be a gift of love or an “olive branch” between the families. With a will of her own and a bad attitude, Angel refuses to fulfill her purpose and embarks to leave town.

In order to convince Schumacher of the film's potential, Cook planned something special.  He went out and bought an old violin case and had one of the Disney artists create a maquette of Angel to fit inside.  Then he had an assistant to Schumacher deliver the case with the plot synopsis.  Upon finishing the synopsis, Cook had written that Schumacher should open the case, which he did.

The move was enough to greenlight the project.

The Angel maquette that Cook sent to Thomas Schumacher.

Realizing the nervousness of executives over the rise of CG films, Cook had the idea to lower costs by having the human characters animated traditionally and the dolls animated digitally, estimating that about 70% of the film would be CG and 30% would be 2D.

The Dolls

The different characters for the different dolls are pretty great, in my opinion.  They included, of course, Angel, made from a wooden scoop, feathers, and some fabric and paint.

The others were also fun and original.  Crazy Ray was a prisoner doll, carved from an old tree stump.  Good O' Boy was made of car parts and had the character of loveable redneck (mentioned as being similar in character to Mater from Pixar's Cars).  Blues Man was a musician, made from a broken mandolin.  Ms. Spinster was carved from a prosthetic leg and foot.  Cherokee Boy was made from an old workman's glove.  My favorite, Honest Abe, had a broken brush for a head (with bristles as his beard).  He would go around, like Buzz Lightyear, thinking that he was the real Abraham Lincoln.

Well, long story short: the film wasn't to be.  After disappointing returns for Treasure Planet and Brother Bear, and after losing Thomas Schumacher to the Disney Theatrical Division, the execs shut down production.  Before that, the story had been altered substantially, turning the dolls into possessed ghosts, helping Elgin and Rose on their way, and it had been renamed numerous times, with "A Few Good Ghosts" being the final choice before the shutdown.

That was late November 2003.  A few short months later, the entire Orlando operation was scuttled.  A few animators were offered jobs in the Burbank studio.  Barry Cook wasn't one of them.

The Future?

Disney still owns the rights to "My Peoples"/"A Few Good Ghosts," and since the leadership transitions of the last few years, the feature animation department has been looking back at ideas that never made it to the big screen during the Eisner era.  For example, "Wreck-It Ralph", which opens in theaters on November 2 of this year was first pitched around 2000, before being brought back in the last few years.  Could the same happen to "My Peoples"?

Here's a selection of the concept and development art from the film, along with an animatic and a few demo reels from animators that worked on the film.  It's cool to see the look as it came into being.

Rose and Elgin

CG Blue Man
CG Cherokee Boy
Lincoln ghost

Angel ghost

Cherokee Boy ghost

Ms. Spinster ghost