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.