Blog Post 5a: Facial Expressions   2 comments

Last week I summarized Disney’s Mulan, in which I mentioned my annoyance in the way they chose to portray the love interest, Li Shang. Disney does not know how to animate pretty people.

To be fair, they’ve learned how to draw noses on women. So, you know, step up in the world.

See? Nose.

I suppose the issue might be that expressions distort the face. I remember learning that clearly in my time at the photo studio — we would sometimes tell parents that it’s okay that the kid isn’t smiling in every picture. Smiles distort the face. They broaden the mouth, push the cheeks upwards, shrink the eyes. Pretty people look less pretty when their features are distorted. And that’s smiling. If you’re dealing with more negative emotions — anger, sadness, fear — they do all sorts of crazy things to the face. Unmarketable things.

In Atlantis, they solved this problem by making the hero what is officially known as “Adorkable”, giving him a full range of emotions, wild, erratic expressions, and a charming, bumbling personality — adorable, but totally a dork, so you just wanna hug him and tell him that you believe in him.

With Atlantis‘s Milo, as with many supporting and background characters, the trick is to give your characters iconic features that wild expressions can’t take away. Gigantic noses are very popular.

I will find any excuse to use this image.

I'd recognize these guys anywhere.

You can’t give pretty characters big noses though. You have to give pretty characters generic faces, with very little detail added, so that the viewer fills in the gaps and assumes that what they are looking at is pretty. Since animators can’t give these characters big expressions, the result is comparatively smaller facial expressions (obviously), but also less interesting characters characters to look at.

I'm looking at you, Shang, while you're looking at Mulan.

With that in mind, I decided to go ahead and see what I could draw. My models:

This is Dan. He had come straight from doing a show, in which he played a character named the Duchess. This is why he's wearing make-up. That isn't to say he doesn't normally wear make-up. But that's why he's wearing it at this particular moment.

My warm-up for drawing Dan.

James, who really needs to trim his beard.

Apparently I can't make my boyfriend look as cute as he is in real life? Should I write a blog about this?

Leandra actually emoted the best out of all of them. I could have probably just taken pictures of her and been satisfied.

My art: inconsistent in quality.

My plan was to take four basic emotions (later three) and take pictures of my models doing those emotions. The first was the simple, basic emotion. Then, the more exaggerated emotion.

Happy — ecstatic
Sad — depressed
Annoyed — Angry — Wrathful

Then, I would take what I had learned from observing them make these faces, and attempt to draw my own, pretty character, with exaggerated expressions.



Happiness is an odd emotion. Have you ever heard a song where someone is happy? Not drunk, not high, just happy? Are there any protagonists who are happy? No, people aren’t happy. People are trying to be happy.

So is Dan.

Yet we all know how look happy. We know what happy people look like. It doesn’t take very long to think of a time when we were happy.

It was before my girlfriend stuck a huge light in my face!

As I said earlier, smiling broadens your mouth, lifts your cheeks, and shrinks your eyes.

Leandra -- Happy

What is more happy than happy? How about ecstatic?


You can’t help but bring body language into bigger emotions. It’s as if the bigger the emotion, the more of yourself you need to use to express it.

Even if you just focus on the face, the change is remarkable — an even wider mouth, and your eyes seem to get bigger, not smaller. You just need to take it all in. The happy face was a pleasant picture, but this one! She’s excited! Doesn’t that make you want to be excited, too?


Sadness turned out to be difficult for anyone to portray.

My theory is that sadness is a more inward emotion than happiness or anger. My models neither confirmed nor denied this theory.

Generally when a character in a movie is sad, they sit quietly and stare off, at the ground or out the window, and just don’t express themselves a whole lot. Maybe they touch a wall. How does one exaggerate lack of expression?

Dan managed to figure it out. He turned the emotion so far inward it started coming back out again. He actually had to take a couple of minutes to calm down from showing it.

Turns out drawing super-sad people makes them look old.

Apparently I forgot about the part where you’re supposed to think, “What are they supposed to get out of this picture?” and emphasize it. How do you take a stuck-out lip and make it bigger?

Tears help

But even Disney does it -- Mulan closes herself off, eyes cast down.


For this last family of emotions, we first tried — annoyance!

When I asked my models to look annoyed, their emotions ranged from mildly confused to disappointed.

Really disappointed.

No wait! Hahaha. Those are the pictures of them looking annoyed.

These are the pictures of them actually succeeding.

Once we managed to get that figured out, the next step was anger.

Dan expressed his anger by clenching his body.

Leandra looked rather disgusted with the whole thing.

And then from there, wrath, or the urge to hurt something because you’re so angry.

James looked oddly neutral at first...

...but it turned out body stance was a subtle, but important part of looking wrathful.

What have we learned from annoyance/anger/wrath? Stance. A lot of this emotion is simply wrenching your eyebrows together, staring at the object of your anger, and perhaps bugging your eyes or pickering/quirking your lips. A lot of emotions are expressed in that way. It really is body stance that sells this emotion. Leandra’s hands on her hips, James’ domineering, very important to looking angry.

So Have We Learned Anything?

This is the creatively-named Pretty, who has straight light hair because that's easiest to draw.

What makes someone look happy? Wider lips, broader cheeks, and shrunken eyes. And yet, she still looks like herself.

The bigger, riskier expression. Where are her fat lips, her upturned eyes? Does she still look like the same person?

Sad people stare at the ground.

But REALLY sad people broadcast it to the world -- stuck upper lip, tears rolling down the cheeks. Is this Pretty, or is this someone else?

It really is the stance that turns this from Confused to Annoyed. I don't know if you can tell, but her posture is straighter.

The lowered eyebrows, the raised shoulders -- this woman is P - I - S - S - E - D

Yes, it really is all about stance for angry emotions. She looks a lot like herself, and yet she looks like she's gunna shivabitch.

If someone like me, with only three months of actual drawing instruction, can telegraph a person’s emotions vividly, without distorting the features unrecognizably, why can’t a professional animator?


Posted February 27, 2012 by agentksilver in animation

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2 responses to “Blog Post 5a: Facial Expressions

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  1. ive never noticed that females dont really have noses until we watched snow white in class. its small attribute but it shows so much. just think about cinderella compared to her step sisters. all i can think about are how big their noes are and how much personality they add to the character.

  2. Pingback: Comment Catch Up! « Animated Thinkings

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