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