What’s wrong with this picture?
Something is wrong with the woman in the center. Can you tell? She’s dead. The Victorians had a strange interest in taking family photos with a dead relative as if they were alive. It was called “post-mortem photography.” How can you tell the woman is dead? She’s staring off into space. Her eyes are open but they’re not focused on anything. It’s a “dead give-away.”
Eyes, even in still images, have a way of conveying life — or death.
Imagine you were assigned to animate a blind character whose eyes were always open and could move. How would you convey the character’s blindness? Focus, or rather the lack of it. He would not be able to fix his gaze on anything. When he moved his head his eyes would remain constrained to his head.
Eyes that are not dead and not blind, but alive with life, will always be fiercely independent of the skull which holds them. Always. Once their gaze becomes dependent upon the skull we begin to feel a lack of focus, a lack of life.
A Clarifying Exercise
Try this exercise and you will see clearly what I mean. Get in a place where you can look from your extreme left to your extreme right. Turn your head to the left and close your eyes. Now “pan” your head slowly from your extreme left to you extreme right in fluid controlled motion. Now do it again, this next time with your eyes open, and as you pan try to keep your eyes locked to your skull so that they don’t move. Can you do it? You can’t (unless you cross your eyes.) Your eyes always need to land on something. Always. Not once in your pan would your eyes pan.
Now, let’s try the pan one more time. This time hold out your left hand at arms length and lift your finger. With the same slow speed, move your left arm from the left to the right and follow your finger with your head and eyes, keeping your eyes locked in your head. Can you do it? Of course you can. Your eyes have a moving target that matches your head motion.
The point of this exercise is this. The eyes of a character who is alive and not blind will never follow the movement of the skull. Never, never, never, never. Ever. The movement of the eyes is always dictated by the environment and objects in their vision. They always lock onto something, whether that something is stationary or in motion.
In your animation you must always lock your eye targets onto something. The only time they eyes will move in smooth motion will be if the character is watching a moving object. There are no other exceptions.If you don’t, even for a moment, you risk your character appearing to be distant or blind.
What weight is to a character’s body, eye targeting is to a character’s face. Neither do you want to see float.