ACTING for ANIMATORS
ED'S MONTHLY NEWSLETTER:
A Quick Tutorial On Blinks
Whether you are trying to make your way out of the uncanny valley or would simply like to evoke a stronger emotional reaction in your audience, putting the blinks in the right place is going to be essential. If his David had been an animation instead of a sculpture, Michelangelo might well have gotten the blinks wrong. Across the animation spectrum, blinking is a challenge. Before CG, back when cartoons were still cartoons, a character's blinking did not draw much attention. Now we live in a more photo-real animation world, and blinks matter. A lot. The fact is that every six year old kid is a PhD expert in what human faces are supposed to do. He may not be able to explain it, but he knows when it is not right.
Blinking serves multiple functions, including keeping the eyeball moist and sweeping out debris that might have gotten in there. The average person at rest blinks 10-20 times per minute, but only 3 or 4 of those blinks are necessary for eyeball maintenance. The rest are correlated to a person’s thought process and are strongly affected by mood and emotion. In general, we blink when we complete a thought and when we grasp the meaning of somebody else’s thought in conversation. A blink will mark the point at which we stop looking at something and begin thinking about it. If you study a Van Gogh painting, for instance, you are likely not to blink much while actually looking at it, but you will blink the moment you glance away. A nervous person will blink more frequently than an angry person. There are many variables, but all of them are factors of thinking and, consequently, emotion. In order to get the blinks in the right place, you really must empathize with your character. Blinking is something the character does, not something that the animator dictates.
Which brings me to an extraordinary bit of work by David Cage and the animation team at Quantic Dream in Paris. Best known for their work on Heavy Rain, these guys continue pushing the photo-real envelope. Kara is a 7-minute PS3 tech demo presented for the first time at this year's GDC where it blew everybody away and has since gone viral. It is such an outstanding accomplishment that it merits a closer look, and I want to draw particular attention to the character's blinking.
The challenge faced by David and friends was to transition the character from 100 percent robot to 100 percent human and then back again to the threshhold of robot-dom. They used a sophisticated mocap setup, capturing the actress's face as well as her body. The facial capture includes the muscle movement around her eyes and her blinks. On the surface of it, this would seem to be a foolproof way to get blinks in the right place. The problem is that an actor - especially one that is new to mocap, as is Valorie Curry here - must juggle several mental tasks at once. She has to remember the specific physical movements the director is asking for while simultaneously portraying a character that has her own pretend circumstances to deal with. Bottom line: It is possible to capture blinks with mocap, but there is a strong probability that the blinks you capture are not the blinks of the character in the context of the story. Instead, they are the blinks of an actor in an unfamiliar situation trying to pat his head and rub his tummy at the same time he is standing on one leg.
With this in mind, let us take a look at Kara. My notes, which I am limiting primarily to the blinks, are below the animation.
:45 Good blink. This establishes that she has a reactive, thinking human brain.
1:01 Good blink. She comprehends his off-camera instruction.
1:33 There should be a blink immediately before she speaks.
1:41 There should be a blink of comprehension just prior to her line, "My name is Kara".
2:14 Need blink.
2:50 Need blink.
2:52 This blink is correctly placed, but the shot is a little too abbreviated at the top. If it had begun just an instant sooner, the blink would register better.
3:04 Need blink
3:18 Need a blink as she grasps what he is saying about her being "ready for work, honey".
3:20 Blink after she says, "What's going to happen to me now?"
3:35 Need blink.
3:37 This blink is in the right place but is not in sync with her thought.
3:52 Need blink.
4:02 Kara has a fully functioning human brain now and is expressing personal values. From this point until the moment she switches back to being a robot, she is under increasing stress which arguably should cause her entire face to be more animated and her blinks to occur more frequently.
4:04 to 4:08. Eye movement is not right. She is robotically staring. Since she is now a human that is facing imminent death, we want to see her fighting to survive. Rapid eye movement and more frequent blinking would be stronger than a stare. While she is being disassembled, her expression is a bit too rigid. As long as she can still talk and think rationally, her face should still be animated. Her predicament is analogous to a person up to her neck in quicksand and sinking fast. The first thing a baby does when she is born is try to live; the last thing a person does before she dies is try to live. Survival is the ultimate human value. She is trying to push back the robotic arms, it is true, but her struggle is arguably not as primal as it could be.
4:50. Need a blink.
5:00 Eyes closing here is excellent. Subsequent eye movement is also excellent. We can see her thoughts.
5:29. Need a blink.
5:52 Double-blink is good here. She's still stressed, having barely escaped death.
5:56 She should blink before she thanks him.
Until next month ...
"Actors and Animators are Shamans!"
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