Monday, December 5, 2011

A Rant About CGI Cartoon Eyes

I know it's been nearly a year since I updated this blog. But tonight I had an interesting conversation on Facebook, and one of the participants suggested I turn it into a blog post. Now, I don't want to sound like a curmudgeon. I won't do a gazillion posts insulting the current state of American cartoons like John Kricfalusi does on his blog. But I WILL do this one.

I was watching "a Charlie Brown Christmas" on TV tonight. Despite the fact that ABC edited out some bits of it to fit in more commercials, I enjoyed it as usual. My eyes were then assaulted by a Disney CGI special called "Prep and Landing". Actually, a sequel to that, but I digress. I should rephrase "eyes were assaulted" was more like "the eyes assaulted ME." There have been a TON of computer-animated movies and TV shows in recent years, and a good majority of them have a design flaw that bothers me. The characters' eyes are not expressive. They look like giant ping-pong balls popping out of the characters' skulls, and they rarely, if ever, change shape or size.

I mentioned this on Facebook, and one astute friend of mine from high school pointed out the Japanese anime influence. We agreed that there is some of that...Osamu Tezuka designed the first true anime character, Astro Boy, with the style of Disney artist Carl Barks in mind.

But Barks' eyes were quite expressive, and Tezuka and his successors were, too. Anime style does indeed have wide, sometimes pie-cut eyes, but they change shape and size for expression.

Compare the above to stuff like this:

Notice the round, staring, ping-pong ball eyes. They never change shape, leaving the eyelids and eyebrows to do all the work. To me, that looks strange. Compare it, if you will, to the hand-drawn masters Chuck Jones and Tex Avery:

Now see some examples in motion. Check out these two clips from Chuck Jones' "Rabbit Fire" and "Rabbit Seasoning". Eyes used to be KEY in American cartoons. Chuck Jones and Tex Avery were the masters of eye expression. A character like Bugs Bunny could say a thousand words without making a sound, just by moving his eyes.

Watch this bit. We've all seen it...but focus on the characters' eyes. They change shape constantly. Watch Elmer Fudd. He doesn't say a word in this scene, but he registers confusion, then frustration, and determination with his eyes alone.

"Rabbit Fire"

It goes to even funnier extremes in this one:

"Rabbit Seasoning"

Now, compare the above Bugs Bunny clips to this:

Notice again the wide, bulging, dead eyes. Even something like "Heavy Metal" did better than THAT. Each character had unique, expressive eyes.

My friend Rachel uses expressive eyes in her comic strips. Though they're simple shapes, the size of the pupils and shape of the eyes change, thus making her characters expressive.

I do it. My characters change eye shape all the time.

So why, with all the awesome stuff that computers can do with cartoons, do we keep seeing this?

It "boggles" the mind.

1 comment:

  1. You're leaving out a whole lot of things here. First of all, cartoony non-round eyes do exist in 3D (and are used quite a lot, actually), the question might be why aren't they present in today´s main feature films? Well, they haven't been present in Disney's or Dreamwork's 2D feature films fore years either. Chuck Jones and Tex Avery cartoony style was never a very cinematic style, but rather a TV show style of animation (with some rare exceptions).
    Just look at Disney's Jungle book forward and you'll see 2D classic design that has round eyeballs, and the eyelid does the rest (the same way your eyes actually work, tough that isn't a measure for good character design anyway)
    On the other hand, it was a technical need at first (you needed round eyeballs for correct rotation) and it might have stuck to 3D studios, I don't know.
    But there have been a lot of very successful attempts to experiment with character design for digital animation and exaggerated, cartoony style. The only thing that may "boggle" the mind is why Pixar or Dreamworks don't feel like getting into that territory.