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:

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