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Bring life to your character animation with dynamic eye movement

By Charles Hopkins Published 11/28/2007 | Arts and Culture
For anyone with a deep fascination or interest in 3D animation, and in particular, 3D character animation, the goal is often to gradually improve the standard of your character animation to the point where you are not afraid to show it to even the most critical audience.

One aspect of character animation, which can be difficult to get a good grasp of, is eye movement. It is easy to underestimate just how vital it is to get the animation of the eyes right in your scenes, and in particular, in close-ups of your 3D character. There is nothing that screams "beginner" more loudly than slow, lazy, left-to-right and back again eye movements. Eyes simply don't move like that... unless you've been drugged, of course. And unless you inject some life and vitality into your characters, through their eyes, they will always look dead and lifeless on screen.

To see a really excellent example of the right way to treat this important and often overlooked area of character animation, take a look at the DreamWorks film "Shrek The Third". While the story and general animation are good enough to hold most people's attention, the eye movements of the characters in the close-up shots is absolutely fantastic! A superb example of the difference a little observation of life in action can make to an animation.

Time for a practical demonstration. Try this - hold your hand up in front of you and look at it. Notice that your eyes do not simply fix on a single point on your hand without moving. They dart from one place to another from your fingers to your palm, to your ring, back to your palm, up to your thumb. It is this continual movement of the eyes from one focus point to another that you must capture in your facial animation if you want your 3D character to look like they have something going on in their head. It is this continual movement that is a noticeable feature of the animation of Shrek. When he is talking to Fiona his eyes move in a shaky, imaginary triangle drawn between her eyes and her mouth. Notice the next time you are talking face-to-face with someone that these are the three points on their face that your eyes most often dart between.

Adding this subtle but vital movement to your character animation is actually a lot easier than you might think. Most 3D animation software these days, even budget packages like Poser, offers some form of non-linear animation - a way of layering up the various elements of the animation that go into making your character "act" on screen, yet keeping them separate for editing purposes. For example, the general body movements might occupy one layer with lip-synched speech on another. All you need to do is create your auxiliary eye movements on a separately editable layer. You won't need many keyframes and you can loop the movement so you only have to create it once. Keep the movement small, no more than a few degrees in any direction. Any gross movement or "look at" animation can be keyframed on a separate layer.

Try this animation technique out the next time your 3D character has a close-up. You'll be amazed at the difference it can make.