The blink of an eye
“Appearance is a high priority, but it isn’t everything,” explains Kuebler. For example, when making a character blink, speed is more important than visual details of the eyelid. “We could make eyelids for human figures out of a soft, pliable material like latex foam or silicone so that when the character’s eyes were closed, the eyelids would look strinkingly real. However, if we did this, blinks could not occur in a fraction of a second because the material would tear or quickly wear out.
“But real blinks don’t occur slowly,” continues Kuebler. “What we do is make an eyelid as a rigid cover that slides over, but doesn’t actually contact, the eyeball. If it remained closed, people could see that the eyelid was actually a smooth plastic cover instead of a detailed eyelid. But blinking eyelids don’t stay closed; they go from fully open to fully closed, and back to fully open in a split second. Obviously, this rapid movement doesn’t give an observer much time to scrutinize the authenticity of the eyelid. More importantly, the blink movement itself is authentic because it occurs as fast as an authentic blink instead of a slow, meticulous blink of a second or more.
Suter revealed that, “Eye blinks in movies are much more forgiving because the audience doesn’t necessarily see moves in real time. For movies, you can make an authentic-looking eyelid like Tom described and take two or even three seconds to execute a very precise blink. But when you print the film, you can run the blink at ten times its real-time speed, so you get the best of both worlds: absolutely authentic looks and speeds. We don’t have that luxury with live action.
“Movie producers can also get away with using a lot of cable mechanisms and puppet-type characters, which only have to perform for a short time,” continues Suter. “Who cares if a figure takes five guys to operate in unison? Once you get a good take, you’re done. Live-action animated figures, however, have to work on their own with little or no operator intervention.”
Compromise breeds success
“Much of our success,” says Gene Poor, president, “is in making the right decisions for compromises. We pay close attention to the number and types of movements as they relate to the personality of a character. This means that more axes of motion isn’t always better. Jeeves the Butler (Figure 2) has one move: his mouth opens and closes. We could easily add more motions, but it isn’t necessary. He’s a very cold, impersonal butler who always looks straight ahead and talks and acts like he’s in a trance.
“We could make more sophisticated moves for other figures, such as puckering the lips when pronouncing an O or W. But this would add considerable cost to the figure and contribute little to realism. There are other ways of adding realism that are much more effective — and with little or no additional cost. It just takes some ingenuity.
“We think a big advantage we have is placing as much emphasis during design on the creative process as on the technology. In fact, we often don’t distinguish between the two because an artist may come up with an idea for doing something a certain way that hasn’t been done before. Technicians or engineers may not see this approach because they’re used to solving problems analytically instead of creatively.”
Poor adds that, “Some seemingly simple moves are actually quite complex, and, therefore, expensive to execute — like standing up from a sitting position or something as simple as a salute. These moves can be done, but to make them look natural reuires many carefully executed and synchronized motions and meticulous programming; otherwise, it will look like a machine standing up or saluting instead of a person. If a movement will look ineffective, we avoid it.”
Many times, realism is added by incorporating props into the figure. For example, instead of simply motioning with its hand while it talks, a figure might hold something — a pipe, pair of glasses, or some other personal effect — and go through gestures as it speaks. Kuebler points out that, “Posture is also important. If a figure will speak for awhile, it has to look comfortable by sitting down or leaning against a file cabinet instead of standing erect, like a robot would.”
“This gives the impression that we are visiting with the character while he or she was busy doing something else,” adds Suter. “The audience might expect Edison to get out of his chair and walk away when he’s done talking.”