We talk so much about making our characters blink and breathe that it can easily seem like were simply interested in the mechanics of life. Nothing could be further from the truth. Yes, there is a degree of blinking and breathing that is mechanically necessary. A character that neither blinks nor breathes is an acting choice, albeit a thoughtless one, that conveys something disturbing, something that would require the eyes to shaded with a bloodshot texture.
If mere blinking and breathing were the solution to our dilemma it would be resolved with a simple conversation with our technical team to add automated blinking and breathing to our rigs. If the head turns more than 30 degrees in less than 12 frames — blink. If the character hasn’t blinked in 5 seconds — blink. When there is a pause in the dialog — take a breath. Such a script to automate our rigs would alleviate our problems if our concern were only the mechanics of breathing and blinking. But, this completely misunderstands the craft of the character animator.
The animator moves things around, whether they are gears, aircraft, elbows or eyes. This is animation at its most elementary level, as high an art form as setting a camera on a tripod and hitting the record switch to capture something moving. Animatronic characters at an amusement park are “animated” — and guess what? They blink! But nobody is fooled into thinking these animatronic characters are thinking or giving award-winning performances.
A character animator is more than an animator. A character animator has as part of their craft and skill set an ability to not only convey life, but to convey interesting character performances and tell a believable story that draws the audience into their world, suspending disbelief that these pixels and polygons and textures are living, thinking, feeling characters. Movement alone doesn’t give us the illusion of life. The movement must be true to humanity, and perform as well as any working actor. A character animator is no someone who can run a 3D program, a character animator is first and foremost an actor, a performer.
When a good character animator is doing their job the blinks and breathing will be integral to their animated performance, they won’t be an afterthought that has been pasted on. Blinking and breathing are not an end in and of themselves, they are as much a part of the whole of a good character animated performance as are anticipation, overlapping action and follow-thru.
Don’t blink — act! When you act you will blink and you will know why you are blinking.