When it comes to interpreting emotions, the eyes are vital. As a human being, trained in social understanding, the movement, shape, and intensity of eyeballs can convey innate insights that words and actions cannot express.

Capturing the humble peeper on screen is of utmost importance to filmmakers, and nowhere is it more challenging than in animation.

To delve deeper into this demanding aspect of animation, Shots recently interviewed five experts in the field, including Nexus Studios – Lead Animator, Marylou Mao, alongside creatives from Aardman, Psyop, Framestore and Golden Wolf to find out the process, intricacies and insights needed to get a glance right in all forms of animation, from photorealistic CGI to hand-drawn anime.

Take a look at Marylou’s insightful advice on how she achieves the perfect balance when animating eyes.


Marylou Mao – Lead Animator, Nexus Studios

Whether we are working in 2D or 3D our job is to infuse the illusion of life to characters otherwise inanimate. The human eye is an expert at deciphering faces and emotions so you can spot immediately if something is off, uncanny or unappealing: it’s an inherent challenge of animation to overcome that.

One of my favourite tricks is exaggeration; you see it at its best in animation styles where the animator will push shapes and movements to improbable extremes. By doing so, we actually tap into the essence of the emotion we want to convey and focus on what matters most. Exaggerating our animations also lets us avoid some of the trickiest “uncanny” effects by playing with the audience’s suspension of disbelief.


Things to keep in mind:

  • Unevenness: the human face is naturally uneven, try mirroring one side of your face and you’ll actually find the result quite creepy. This means that when we animate we need to consciously build in this unevenness and exaggerate it so it feels intentional. Unevenness also allows to “open” on side of the face while the other one compresses which helps sell the character’s eye direction and the scene’s composition


  • Don’t forget eyebrows and cheeks! They are intrinsic to the eye shape and support each other. The Face is full of complex muscle systems that influence each other, it’s our job as animators to capture the essence of that movement


  • Be careful of the Iris position! Generally speaking, the iris should always rest slightly under the upper lid to create an appealing eye. Showing the white of the eye above the iris will communicate craziness, fear or surprise so use it carefully. You can choose the shrink scale up the Iris to exaggerate an emotion as it will help show more or less of the white: shrink it for extreme surprise and fear and scale it up for teary puppy eyes. Use it with moderation, as it will easily start breaking the character design.


In the end, the character design and the tone of the movie will dictate your animation style and how much you want to use exaggeration and other animation tricks. The animation principles will stay the same however so it’s crucial to study the face and its complex movements. Try with your own face, act it out! You’ll get a feel for what moves and how much, and you’ll get immersed in the emotion.. after all, animators are the actors behind the 2D drawings and 3D puppets.

Read the full article here!