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Face to Face with Chris Landreth’s Masterclass on Facial Animation

It’s all smiles for animators taking the new facial animation masterclass from Chris Landreth.

Chris Landreth.

From the first time I met Chris Landreth almost a decade ago, to our most recent meeting this past August in the waning hours of SIGGRAPH, I’ve always been impressed with the clarity and intensity of his focus. I remember that first meeting very clearly, a smoky, oppressively loud stairwell in a German discotheque.  Chris was explaining his new idea for a short film, about this talented animator named Ryan Larkin who was a star at the NFB before drugs and alcohol drove him to a life of panhandling on the streets of Montreal.  I listened intently.  It sounded crazy.  I tried to be funny – “Sounds like a real comedy” I said.  He looked at me without smiling and said “No, it’s not. It’s an animated documentary of sorts about this really intense artist and the demons that destroyed his life and his career.”  As I said, a real comedy.  For the next 30 minutes he explained to me in great detail about the film he was going to make.

Fast forward several years and Chris is accepting his Academy Award for his film Ryan.   Exactly the film he told me he was going to make.  As I said, Chris is known for intensity of his focus.  In my 15 years at the helm of Animation World Network, I’ve heard more than a few story ideas.  Some were even coherent. It was obvious Chris’ idea was not just a tale of sorrow and woe, but a new way of using state of the art cg animation to explore and visualize the emotion of a tragic but compelling character. 

Chris now brings that clarity and intensity of focus to the classroom with Making Faces: a Masterclass on Facial Animation, a 42-hour, 4 week masterclass he developed this past spring with the expert help of Mark Jones and Sean Craig at Seneca College’s School of Communication Arts.

Starting up this September 20th at Sheridan College in Ontario, Canada, the course is generating considerable “buzz” and should prove to be a great success. Future classes are in the works, including a 2 week version being held in Paris with George Melies and private courses scheduled at some major animation studios. 

"Our excellent and long standing relationship with Chris made it a no-brainer for us to support him in having his course originate at here Seneca College. He built an excellent curriculum and our students were thrilled with the experience." – Mark Jones,

Making Faces is a complete immersion in facial animation.  From complex musculoskeletal anatomy to rigging and animation, this masterclass is bound to radically change any student’s fundamental perspective on the vital importance of the face in character animation. The course is a direct extension of Chris’ own philosophy, knowledge and skill as an artist, animator and student of animation, his years of experience spent creating some of the most memorable and well respected animated shorts ever made.  Like Richard Williams’ highly-regarded week-long course, this is a “masterclass” in the truest sense of the word.

From Chris' film The Spine.

To know Chris’ work, his creation of such short films as The End (1995), Bingo (1998), Ryan (2004) and The Spine (2009), is to know firsthand the intensity of his vision, his obsessive attention to the smallest detail needed to capture the essence of his characters, their strengths, their weaknesses, their drama, their very essence.  Chris’ films make you uncomfortable, in the same way a comedian can bring awkward silence to a club with a pointed joke a bit too indelicate, a bit too off-color, a bit too honest.  How many times did you look down at your shoe while watching Bingo?

Central to the uniqueness and power of Chris’ work are his characters and the in-your-face (no pun intended) way they act, how much intensity comes to the story by way of their emotions and how their faces are animated.  Much is made of the push towards true photorealism, the always-present dangers of falling headfirst towards certain death within the Uncanny Valley.  However, Chris animates faces in an almost hyper-realistic way – we’re not uncomfortable because some noticeable flaws in the rendered faces give us the creeps, we’re uncomfortable because we’re forced to look at images that convey emotions with such reality and intensity that our natural response is to back away. Chris calls this “psychorealism.”  He captures the very essence of emotion and acting in his faces, and just like real life, it aint always pretty.

Bingo the Clown-O, from Chris’ film Bingo.

Though the masterclass does cover some basics, according to Chris, students should have intermediate to advanced knowledge of CG character animation, with 1 year experience using Maya software.  As the description states, the course will “focus on creating and animating the faces of human characters that are ‘right’ - that is, realistic, believable and compelling.  Study the appearance and behavior of the face, then apply this to the faces of detailed Maya characters.”

The first part of the course, roughly 25%, involves nothing but the drawing of heads.  No computers.  Students will study the form of the head so they become comfortable with basic portraiture.  They will learn to draw the skull, not the face, learning to draw a head from 3 dimensions.

According to Chris, we look at a person’s face more than any other part of their body.  We look at their expressions, their eyes, the nuances of their emotions, all through the face. Even though the course covers a photo-realistic facial approach to animation, any animator can benefit from such study.  Cartoony-type animators taking this course should gain a greater ability to do their more stylized work.

From here the course moves into anatomy and behavior.  The course draws inspiration from behavioral psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman and his pioneering work, FACS, the Facial Action Coding System.  FACS is a tool that helps measure any facial expression a human being can make – it’s an anatomically-based system for describing all observable facial movement.

According to Ekman in his seminal work from the early 1970s, there are 6 characteristics of emotion: Anger, Disgust, Fear, Happiness, Sadness and Surprise. The course breaks these down in detail, how we recognize these emotions when we see them and what is happening within the facial anatomy that causes facial features to convey them.  From here, the emotions are broken down further into their individual muscular elements – using the 15 muscles of the face, you have infinite options for creating realistic expressions.  If you use them properly. Chris uses a facial rig done in Maya to illustrate all the facial muscle actions and how you can map all expressions to these fundamental building blocks.  At this point in the course, the computers are still idle, but the hands are cramped from all the drawing.

Slide from the course.

The next part of the course, somewhere around 30%, focuses on cg – fundamental rigging of the face, modeling expressions, blending shapes and studying the slippery slope between great animation and the Uncanny Valley. As they say, one bad smile can not only ruin your entire day, it can ruin your entire film.  At the conclusion of this section of the course, students will have a basic rigged face from which to animate.

Animation labs and exercises makes up the final segment of the course.  This is where the clinical study and detail of the rigging and modeling are merged with the emotional charge of acting.  Students will think like actors, not like puppets.  The first exercise is a study in the complexity of simplicity – a face that isn’t doing anything while it actually does a tremendous amount.  As Chris describes this section of the course, you can’t force motion.  There is a tremendous amount going on with a face that is technically “not doing anything.”  Eyes blink and move constantly; they roll around, nostrils flare, cheeks move with every breath.  There is a lot going on.  The students do a 4 frame blink exercise - by this time, they have a sense of why the face moves in certain ways even though there is no “action” going on at the time. 

Is it real, or is it Memorex?

Next, they move to expressions, lip-synching and other facial movement.  Chris uses the examples of the work of clowns, highly expressive comedians like Lucille Ball and Red Skelton, images of how people scream.  He also makes ample use of video clips of famous actors – Orson Welles, Kevin Spacey, Dustin Hoffman are just a few.  When Chris mentioned Orson Welles, I reminded him of a presentation he did in Germany many years ago, how he showed a clip from Citizen Kane  where Orson Welles tore apart a bedroom – the assumed emotion behind his violent rage seemingly contradicted by an absolute bland, almost blank expression on the actor’s face.  The entire presentation was fascinating but in particular I remember being mesmerized by his use of film clips and images of famous artwork to illustrate in great detail what he was “thinking” when he did made certain decisions in his films. 

I have always been impressed by Chris’ ability to make an audience feel like they’ve been let in on some trade secret or insider information as he walks them through his process.  It’s more than just good teaching. He’s giving you access to his intuitive thought process, not just the steps of his production pipeline.  His focus and sheer intelligence brings an audience right alongside him as he explains the very essence of how he looks at the world through the eyes of an artist.  I have only met a handful of people who have sheer smarts coupled with the ability to make sense when speaking of highly complex issues.  I know many really smart people – most couldn’t explain how to make microwave popcorn, let alone get the package out of its wrapper. 

The final lab involves taking a favorite sound file and piece of acting, then putting them together into a full facial animation.  In total, there are 42 hours of masterclass broken into 3 ½ hour classes, 3 times a week, for 4 weeks.  I’m not an animator and I don’t play one on TV either.  However, after walking through this class with Chris, what he’s trying to teach, what he feels is important for animators to learn, I’m ready to sign-up myself. There’s no doubt this is a class that serious character animators should go out of their way to attend.   

Complete information on the upcoming masterclass at Sheridan can be found at:

Chris Landreth can be reached at

Dan Sarto is the Publisher and COO of Animation World Network.  He’s also obviously a fan of Chris Landreth.  And rightly so.