Home Animation Tips and Tricks Blink for a Reason: Acting Advice from ILM Lead Animator Shawn Kelly

Blink for a Reason: Acting Advice from ILM Lead Animator Shawn Kelly

We're huge fans of detailed facial animation tips, so this blog by ILM Lead Animator Shawn Kelly is our jam. If you've been having your characters follow the "blink every two seconds" rule then read on—this one's for you!

Many animation students have been taught that humans blink to keep their eyes moist, and that you should have your characters blink at least once every 2 seconds. In fact, this is exactly what I was originally taught back when I was in school as well.

I understand where this is coming from. I do. I get it.

But it’s wrong.

Look – if you do a scene where your character doesn’t blink at all, and don’t have a reason behind it, you have a fair chance of that character feeling a little dead. However, there are plenty of times when you’d WANT the character to not blink—maybe he’s scared out of his mind, or she’s looking longingly into her husband’s eyes, or you’re doing some homage to A Clockwork Orange

Malcolm McDowell  in A Clockwork Orange (Warner Bros.)
Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange (Warner Bros.)

We’ll get into that stuff in a minute. For now, I just want to point out the reasoning behind the “blink every 2 seconds” rule. Ostensibly, it’s so your character feels alive. That’s the idea they’re shooting for, anyway.

Sadly, this is a very outdated concept. If you choose to animate according to this rule, and have every character blink every 2 seconds, two things will happen:

1) First off, congratulations: no one will wonder if your character is dead, or if his eyes are getting enough moisture. Mission (sort of) Accomplished.

2) Instead, they’ll be wondering if your characters are meant to be robots.

Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (Universal Pictures)
Alicia Vikander in Ex Machina (Universal Pictures)

Blinks are so much more than the merely physical act of moistening our eyeballs! We blink for a variety of reasons, and the absolute least important of these reasons to you, as an animator, is the “I’m just getting my eyeballs wet” blink. Forget about that blink. File it away in your head for future use, I guess, but file it in the back of the bottom drawer, right next to “My Aunt Martha’s right eyebrow shoots upwards every time she says ‘pretzel’.” It’ll come up about as often in your work, and be about as useful as well.

Ok, so what’s the tip, then? Here it is:

Blink For A Reason!

That’s it. It’s pretty simple really. Just like with every single conceivable aspect of your animation, you don’t do ANYTHING without a reason. You don’t move a single finger without knowing why your character is moving it, and the eyes (and sometimes even more importantly, the blinks) are no exception.

Just like with every single conceivable aspect of your animation, you don’t do ANYTHING without a reason. You don’t move a single finger without knowing why your character is moving it, and the eyes (and sometimes even more importantly, the blinks) are no exception.

We blink for a bunch of reasons, but the most important to me are these:

  • We blink in the middle of a fast head turn
  • We blink when we shift our thought process
  • We blink to show or hide emotion

  • For me, those three things dictate 99.9999% of the blinks I’ve ever animated, and I’ll tell you what—not one of them has anything to do with any “2-Second” rule.

    1. We blink in the middle of a fast head turn.

    Jennifer Lopez Demonstrates on World of Dance (NBC)
    Jennifer Lopez Demonstrates on World of Dance (NBC)

    This is one that most of you have heard about, and use often. Personally, I think it’s a great rule, and seems to work really well. If your character’s head does a really fast head-turn, drop a blink in there near the middle or near the end of the head turn, and it’ll give it a nice natural feel. This is something I’ve definitely observed in people, and it’s a great rule of thumb to generally keep in mind.

    I’m not sure why we blink mid-turn, but I think it might have something to do with having too much visual information zooming past our eyes, and our brain says, “Holy moly! Too much information! Gotta shut those things for a moment!” I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds like it might be right, and that’s good enough for me…

    2. We blink when we shift our thought process.

    This is an absolutely essential and endlessly useful tool in animation – something you can truly use over and over again, in shot after shot. Like the idea of advanced “anticipation,” this really can be one of those few “lifelines” of communication you can have with your audience. A way to reach out to them, and whisper, “Hey, check it out! He’s thinking right now! Oooh! And now he’s made up his mind!”

    Priyanka Chopra in Quantico (ABC)
    Priyanka Chopra in Quantico (ABC)

    Before I go on, I want to recommend a great book, called In The Blink Of An Eye by Walter Murch. Murch is an incredibly accomplished film and sound editor, with a bunch of Oscars on his mantle, and great work in such films as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II, The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley.

    The Blink of an Eye cover by Walter Murch
    The Blink of an Eye by Walter Murch

    His book is about film editing, but is fascinating from an animation standpoint, because of his theory of blinks. Basically, his theory is that we blink to “edit” the “films” of our lives. Throughout the day, our eyes are our film’s cameras, and our eyelids blink when a scene changes, etc. Using this theory, he looks for the moments that the lead actor’s eyes blink as a natural place to cut a scene.

    A lot of the ideas in this article are based on discussions some of us have had based on Murch’s ideas, so be sure to check out his book – it’s a quick read, and has some very interesting insights.

    Anyway – back to shifting our thought processes…

    The eyes are the windows to the soul, right? We’ve talked about that cliche, and how right it is, and how important it is to communicate with your character’s eyes. Personally, I feel like 70-80% of the emotion of your character is going to be sold in the face, and 90% of THAT emotion will be sold in the eyes. The timing and direction of your eye darts will communicate more than almost any other thing in your scene.

    But a HUGE part of that communication is with eye blinks. We can talk more about eyes later, if you guys want, but as far as blinks go, all the great eye animation in the world will not work without carefully planned blinks.

    Here’s an example:

    Your character is in a basement. Scared. Backing into a dark corner, unsure of where the villain is hiding. His eyes are wide, darting all over the place, searching frantically. For help. For a way out. For a weapon. For a hiding place.

    So far, so good. No reason to blink, right? He’s scared for his life, searching DESPERATELY for help. His eyes want to suck in as much information as humanly possible, because if they don’t figure something out quick, his eyes might stop seeing anything at all pretty soon.

    Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (HBO)
    Maisie Williams as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones (HBO)

    If you’re animating this scene, you’re going to be taking the “no blinks at all” approach as far as you can. If the eyes are desperate enough, I think you could get away with not blinking for 10 seconds or more. There are countless scenes where top actors convey their intensity and emotion by not blinking for much longer than 10 seconds. At some point, though, a sustained shot of “scared guy” is going to get stale and boring, so pay attention and blink accordingly.

    Back to our example:

    So, he’s scared and desperate. No blinks yet. His back bumps against concrete, and he realizes he is cornered. His eyes are even wider. Searching. Hoping. Suddenly, they lock on! He spies a shovel! A weapon! He’s found hope!

    Guess what he does?

    He grabs the shovel, right? Well, yeah, he does, but what does he do first?

    He blinks.

    Why? Well, it’s sort of the Walter Murch thing. He’s “cutting” his film. His “scared and hopeless” scene has ended, and it’s time for the “try to be a hero” scene, starring him and his shovel.

    In other words, his thought-process has shifted. He’s gone from one idea to another idea, in his head. He was scared out of his mind, and now his fright has morphed a little bit. It’s evolved. He’s probably still scared, but I bet his eyes are a little narrower, now that he has
    his shovel in hand. His eyes are darting a lot less. He’s still frightened, but now he’s a little hopeful, and maybe even a little mad. Who is this lunatic hunting him down in his basement?! Who does he think he is!? He’s going to get a face full of shovel if he doesn’t get out right now!

    Right?

    Just as with any other bit of planning, it’s essential to search through your scene and try to find a moment of change – when an emotion changes, or an idea shifts. These are ALWAYS the meatiest moments for you as an actor and animator, and these are generally the moments when you will carefully choose when to blink.

    When you first get handed a scene like this, you’re going to study the amount of time you have to work with, you’re going to plan out your motions and timing, figure out your dynamic poses, etc. Just as with any other bit of planning, it’s essential to search through your scene and try to find a moment of change – when an emotion changes, or an idea shifts. These are ALWAYS the meatiest moments for you as an actor and animator, and these are generally the moments when you will carefully choose when to blink.

    3. We blink to show or hide emotion.

    How do we know he’s scared? Well, hopefully you’re using as many small things as possible to show his fear. Hopefully his movements feel afraid, his head and eyes are darting around, his overall actions and broad movements can even show fear.

    But having those wide, unblinking freaked out eyes – THOSE are going to sell the fear as much as anything else. Maybe even more than anything else, right? So right off the bat, we have an emotion being sold through blinks, or rather, through the lack of blinks.

    What would it look like if he was blinking a lot in the basement? He’d look flustered, maybe he’d look like he’s thinking rapidly about a lot of different ideas, or trying to remember something. He might look shy, or maybe even nervous. But he probably wouldn’t look scared, no matter WHAT you did with the rest of him.

    Bubbles played by Mike Smith in Trailer Park Boys
    Bubbles played by Mike Smith in Trailer Park Boys

    Once Mr. Scared finds his shovel, he blinks to show that realization (and the timing and number of blinks at this point, by the way, will totally define the mood of the performance. A long pause, with two wide-eyed blinks would be funny and played for comedy, whereas a quick blink and dash for the shovel will keep it in the “scary” realm), but now that he has his shovel, we’re going to use our blinks in a whole new way.

    He’s still scared, but not so desperate that he can’t blink now and then. Now we’ll have quick “scared” blinks (slower blinks would feel too laid back) now and then, maybe when he’s shifting his gaze from one place to another, or if he hears a sound in the other corner of the basement, etc.

    Ricky Whittle in American Gods (Canada Film Company)
    Ricky Whittle in American Gods (Canada Film Company)

    The timing and number of your blinks are an invaluable way of letting your audience know what’s going on in your character’s head. Not only how he’s feeling, but when those feelings are changing.

    To me, this concept is one of the most fundamental foundations of any good acting performance, and I think it’s something worthwhile for us all to continue to study and deconstruct.


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