E is for Eyes

by Graham Edwards

E is for EyesIn the VFX ABC, the letter “E” stands for “Eyes”.

When a character appears on a movie screen, which part of their face do you look at first? The eyes, of course.

You can’t help it. As a human being, you’re programmed to make eye contact, whether the person in front of you is flesh and blood, or just a fiction of jostling pixels. Like the proverb says: “The eyes are the mirror of the soul.”

I reckon that’s true, but the quote I really want to share comes from the writer G K Chesterton:

There is a road from the eye to heart that does not go through the intellect.

Chesterton’s words feel right for the movies, don’t you think? At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether and engages directly with the emotions. And how do we read emotions in other people? You guessed it: through their eyes.

For a visual effects supervisor, creating a synthetic character with believable eyes is a monumental challenge. I’m sure you can think of a few movies where they pulled it off. And even more where they didn’t. Below is a still from a film in the former category: an animated short featuring some truly incredible eyes. The film is called Madame Tutli-Putli and, if you’re anything like me, your two responses upon seeing the title character will be (1) “Wow, look at those eyes” and (2) “Uh, hold on … what exactly am I looking at here?”

Madame Tutli-Putli

Have you worked out how they did it yet? Don’t worry, I’ll put you out of your misery a little further down the page. Before then, let’s take a closer look at a few visual effects that have left me, well, wide-eyed.

I really wanted the eyes to be very important … something of a cross between the eyes of Einstein, Sandburg and Hemingway.

That’s what Steven Spielberg said about the design of ET, the world’s most famous squishy alien, and one of cinema’s most engaging animatronic creatures. ET’s amazing eyes were constructed by the Jules Stein Eye Institute at UCLA and Beverly Hoffman of Ocular Prosthetics. Yes, while the little guy with the glowing heart may have been the product of movie magic, his eyes were genuine medical marvels.

The Eyes of ET: The Extra-Terrestrial

One of the earliest artificial eyes ever discovered belonged to a woman who lived in what is now Iran during the Proto-Elamite period (around 2900 BC). This ancient prosthetic consisted of a clay hemisphere plated with gold and held in place with gold threads. Later came the first glass eyes, and ultimately the sophisticated acrylic models in use today. The long history of this well-established medical discipline – and the expert skills of its practitioners – means that traditional creature creators like Carlo Rambaldi (the man who made ET) know exactly where to look to find the eyeballs of their dreams.

Gremlins Eye MechanismIt’s one thing getting eyes to look good. It’s quite another getting them to perform. For Joe Dante’s Gremlins, Chris Walas created a suite of giant-sized animatronic “superfaces” to bring Gizmo and his diminutive buddies to life. These foot-wide mogwai faces were more than big enough to accommodate the complex cable controls needed to drive their elaborate expressions. But inside the smaller life-size heads, things were tight. Walas had just 2-3 inches of room in which to squeeze all the mechanisms required to drive nose wiggles, mouth open-and-close, gross head movement, ear movement … not to mention that critical articulation of the eyes.

Digital tools mean it’s now possible to create artificial eyes for movie characters that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing. Mind you, that word “almost” is a problem. We’ve all stared across the “uncanny valley” – that perceptual gulf which means a set of animated eyes that’s nearly right is, in fact, precisely wrong enough to give us the crawling creeps.

The Eyes of Gollum

Perhaps the first digital character to reach the other side of the uncanny valley was Gollum, as featured in Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings trilogy. We first see Gollum’s eyes in The Fellowship of the Ring, flashing briefly in the mines of Moria with that eerie retinal reflection effect familiar to anyone who owns a cat. It was in The Two Towers, however, that Gollum really came into his own, with Andy Serkis’s motion-captured performance being flawlessly translated into digital form by the team at Weta Digital.

It’s easy to forget how much work the animators did on that show – after all, you can’t paint mo-cap dots on an eyeball, right? And let’s not forget all that fiddly rigging which means that, for example, the eyes of Treebeard in the same film included a “’sticky’ eyelid control, so as the eye looked right and left, the lids would distort across the corneal bulge and follow with a slight delay.”

The Eyes of Neytiri

Whichever way you look, there’s no getting away from the seductive power of eyes. Richard Baneham, Weta Digital’s animation supervisor on Avatar, sums it up neatly:

As an audience, when we see a piece of film, we immediately lock onto the eyes of a character and try to determine what the character is feeling emotionally.

Critically, if you really want to draw your audience in, your character’s eyes have to resemble those of a human. Even if they’re an alien. Here’s Avatar producer Jon Landau describing the development of the Na’vi designs: “We had everything from a Cyclops version to a multi-eyed version of the Na’vi at one point, but eventually we went back to a much more traditional [binocular] foundation … If we wanted the audience to relate emotionally to these characters, there needed to be familiar touchstones.”

Madame Tutli-Putil

All of which brings us nicely back round to Madame Tutli-Putli. I defy you to look into her haunting eyes without feeling that essential emotional connection. So who is this curious woman, and how was she created?

Before I tell you, take a look at the movie itself (depending on what territory you’re in, your browser will display either the trailer or the complete film. There’s a separate download link further down the page.):

Madame Tutli-Putli is a short animated film written, directed and animated by Chris Lavis and Maciek Szczerbowski. Described as “an exhilarating existential journey”, it follows its titular heroine on a nightmare train ride through a strange landscape, in the company of an array of sinister fellow passengers.

The film’s characters are brought to life through the venerable process of stop-motion. However, their eyes are as real as yours and mine. As described on the website of visual effects artist Jason Walker, the film uses “a remarkable production process whereby live action human eyes were added to almost 20 minutes of stop-motion animation, in a manner that was perfectly seamless and completely unobtrusive.”

The animation came first. Then live-action of actress Laurie Maher was shot to match. The live-action footage was then meticulously resized, retimed and tracked to the puppet head, with special attention paid to the shadows and reflections present in the original animated scene. For a step-by-step analysis of exactly how this painstaking work was done, read this excellent article on the Creative Planet Network.

As I’m sure you’ll agree, the resulting effect is astonishing. Here’s a before/after video comparing the raw animation to the finished thing:

In the VFX ABC, “E” is for “Eyes”. They’re the hardest thing to get right with any synthetic character – animatronic, digital or otherwise. Am I right? Tell me if you disagree.

And if there’s a set of cinematic eyes that’s, uh, caught your eye, tell me about them too. I’d love to cast my eye over them. I mean give them an eyeball – sorry, get them in my sights. Oh … you know what I mean. Focus in on them. Take a look. Have a peek …

Gee whiz. Those eyes sure do follow you around, don’t they?

All quotes from Cinefex magazine unless otherwise stated: #11 – Turn on Your Heartlight by Paul M. Sammon; #19 – Never Feed Them After Midnight by Paul M Sammon; #120 – The Seduction of Reality by Jody Duncan.

2 thoughts on “E is for Eyes

  1. Interesting post, and the short is beautiful, although I’m not sure I agree that “At its very best, cinema is an art form that bypasses the brain altogether”

    • Thanks, Simon. You’re right – movies can also engage the intellect, of course. But, for me, the greatest movie moments come when I’m wide-eyed, absorbing without thinking. I like the debate to come later, after I’ve left the cinema.

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