Dundee Researcher Unveils Rules to Help Animated Characters Appear More Lifelike

If Shrek and his fellow animated characters are not already incredibly lifelike in their facial expressions, they could become even more so as a result of new research from a Scottish university.

A PhD student and lecturer at the University of Abertay, in Dundee, has – says the university – “devised a set of rules to help animators sequence their facial animations to portray a more convincing emotion”. 

Robin Sloan is a PhD student and lecturer based in the university's Institute of Arts, Media and Computer Games.

His conclusions follow a series of experiments studying how the upper and lower regions of the face move during expressions of, say, happiness, surprise or anger.

For instance, for sadness to look authentic, he believes it needs to lead from the upper face – essentially, the furrowing of the brow and lowering of the eyes should occur before the mouth corners turn downward.

If this expression unfolds the other way round, it can look childlike or faked. 

Sloan is quoted, saying: “While much is known about the appearance and perception of emotional facial expressions, researchers and professionals still struggle to create perceptually believable animated characters. For example, films such as Polar Express and Beowulf are ‘performance-captured’ where the performance of human actors is transferred onto computer animated characters.

“However, the aesthetic results of this technique have not been fully embraced by the public, as it appears that audiences view the characters as fake and unrealistic. Indeed, we are often more likely to believe in characters from more traditional animation films such as Toy Story or Shrek – animations which are carefully crafted by teams of animators.

“While the computer animation research community is quite rightly interested in the technical possibilities of performance capture, we wanted to highlight the fact that traditional animation can still play an important role in research, and to show that an artistic approach to animation can yield tangible research findings. We feel that our research could, for instance, have implications for the development of believable computer game characters, as an understanding of what makes for believable facial expression animation can boost their credibility.”

Sloan’s latest research was published in the Journal of Computer Animation and Virtual Worlds.