May 11, 2012

Eyes in Animation: Pupils

I really don’t know how to describe this. I’m not even sure why I started writing this. I guess I want to express my thoughts and knowledge about eyes. It's hard to say are these actually useful information but maybe they are at least very cool things to know about. 

However, I think that most of the time all this knowledge can cause some trouble, especially in animation field. Because obviously reality and animation doesn’t always share the same rules with each other (if they did, there wouldn’t be gigantic, gravity defying breasts that some ladies have in animation..). It’s understandable but also quite funny at the same time.

But who knows? Maybe I will educate some of you and you’ll be happy to learn something new!


One of my biggest pet peeves is the enlarged pupils in character’s eyes. Not the static pupils that animated characters have permanently. I’m talking about the moment when the pupil in the eye starts to dilate. 

One good example of this is that infamous scene from Shrek 2 (2004), where the cat stares with his eyes wide open and making the most adorable face the audience has ever seen. I know what they are trying to achieve with that, but every time I see that shot I keep thinking “Run away, you fool! Can’t you see that cat is going to strike you in the throat?!”

This probably needs some explaining. You see, when a person or an animal gets aggressive or scared, the adrenalin is pumped in the body. Part of that adrenalin goes to your eyes. Now, when adrenalin goes to your eyes, it enlarges the pupils. By enlarged the pupil your eye will get more light (this is why for example your pupils enlarge when you are in dark places, it’s much easier to see) . This is very important in dangerous situations where you need all the light and your ability to see clearly in order to survive.

So, when I see enlarged pupils in animation, I think that the person is aggressive and you should run as fast as you can. Or at least be very cautious about it.

You may be thinking now: “If enlarged pupils actually mean that the person is mad, then why on earth do we use them on cute kitten drawings and on Disney princesses?! This is madness!” 

Well, because eyes are complicated. And simply because:

a) It looks appealing.

b) Large pupils don’t always mean that the person is trying to kill you.

Let me explain.

Face it. Large pupils make things look appealing. Look for example these pictures:

Now look at these..

Which row looked much appealing to you? 

Most of you probably chose the first row (except Rafiki, he looks like he's on drugs), with large pupils. It’s not surprising. Scientists have been studying this many ways. One famous example was a study where dozens of men were asked to watch two exact same photos of a woman. There was one detail that was different: in one photo the woman’s pupils were large and in the other one the pupils were small. 

When asked which photo was more attractive to the men, almost every man said that the one with large pupils was attractive. They didn't know that it was because of the pupils until it was explained to them.

So, if large pupils look appealing then what do tiny pupils do? They look scary and sometimes quite dramatic. Tiny pupils are mostly used in scenes (or used part of character design, think about Scar from The Lion King [1994]) where the character is scared or insane. It is effective and describes the state of mind of that character. Think about any anime fight scenes or animated movies where there’s a close-up of a character that is in deep trouble or.. well, just crazy. That character’s pupils are very, very tiny. In reality, it doesn't make any sense but in animation it looks just right and damn cool.

And just for fun, let's see how scary this innocent picture of Simba and Nala showing big smile will look if we mess around with the eyes.

What they normally look like..

The change...

This picture will haunt your dreams tonight.

Now about the B part. What other things do large pupils mean then? Well, pupils tend to enlarge when a person is interested in something. Again, the pupils get larger so that you will be able to get much information as possible. This can happen when you are watching your favorite movie or seeing delicious food.

I have heard someone to say that one dating advice is to check the date’s pupils to see if they dilate. If they do, that can mean that he or she is interested. Well.. there's two problems with this "dating trick". 

First, there's a big difference how close you are to the person. If you are very close, the person pupils will get smaller in order to see better. If you stand far away, the eyes will enlarge to see that far.

Secondly, like I said before, enlarged pupils can mean other things. Like if the person is scared or getting angry.  

Because of these sweet little eye functions, it's very hard to tell if the person is actually interested in you. So, maybe it would be much better to study body language or simply just ask. Don't to stare his or her eyes. Because, you know, staring someone's eyes can be also quite creepy. Sorry, I mean very creepy.

I don’t watch that much 3D animation but I wonder if the animators aware of all this kind of information about eyes. The eyes movements are very realistic nowadays (especially in Bolt, I really like how subtle the eye movements are!) so maybe it’s not that insane to think that these details are being used. Especially when animated movies are getting more and more realistic looking.

And lastly, let me make one thing very clear: I'm not one of those people who likes to point out how some things shouldn't work in certain way in animation because it doesn't work like that in real world (for example, some people argue that Zazu's beak shouldn't squash and stretch because real bird's beak doesn't bend that way. Yes, there are actually people like that.). I know perfectly well that in animation (and sometimes in movies) some things work differently from reality because it's the best way to tell the story and make audience to get emotionally involved. But sometimes it's just fun to think about these details. It makes you admire and wonder how differently we view things in movies while it can mean exact opposite in real life. It's very fascinating!

Oh, boy. I just realized that I spend an hour and half to explain something so simple that even an highschool student knows this stuff. Okay, maybe doesn’t know, but sure doesn’t give a damn. Dammit!

Next time I will talk about blindness..


  1. Mielenkiintoista tekstiä :) Näitä on kiva lukea.
    -- Soile

    P.S. Sulla on muistaakseni joku juttu tohon sokeuteen :D

  2. Very interesting post! I will never see animations through the same eyes :D

    1. I'm so glad to hear that someone finds text like this interesting! :) I was almost wondering should I even start to write about these things..