23 March, 2010

Blinks Have Meaning ~Shawn Kelly

This is in the eBook Tips and Tricks. It's a bit lengthy, but really informative! Go and grab some coffee and take a little break, you'll be glad that you did! I also posted the scene from Forrest Gump that Shawn references in the article.


Tip 1: Blinks Have Meaning!

I feel like writing about blinks today. Why? I just saw a commercial on TV (name of product withheld to protect the innocent) starring a character who had a severe blinking problem. Now, I don’t mean the character blinked too much. I don’t mean he blinked too fast. I don’t mean the character’s blinks were too far offset, too slow, or too few. No, this character was plagued by a disease that has been running rampant through animation (particularly student work, though not Animation Mentor students, of course. Everything they do is perfect and wonderful in every conceivable way... Well, okay, that’s not exactly true, but I haven’t actually seen it as a problem in the school. Probably because we harp on stuff like this ad nauseum).

Where was I?

Oh yeah, the disease...

Let’s call it “Randomblinkitis.”

Many animated characters currently living out their lives on demo reels around the world suffer from this terrible disease, causing their blinks to feel random and meaningless. While some characters use their blinks to convey thought process and emotion, these poor Randomblinkitis victims are forced to slog through their daily existence unable to properly communicate their emotions and thoughts to each other, let alone to recruiters around the globe. It’s a tough life for them, folks, so let’s do something about it! See, the medicine for this heartbreaking disease is Observation. It’s easy to do, and it’ll mean so much to your animated characters (and to the recruiters forced to have to try to communicate with your characters!) if you can just take a little time to observe the blinks of your friends, your family, your co-workers, your favorite movie star, and yourself before you start plowing ahead into acting scenes. Listen, I know about the whole “I just discovered animation a month ago and must do an acting scene IMMEDIATELY!” thing. I know you all want to do acting scenes. I know you think they’re the most fun. I know you think they’re your ticket into Pixar. And I also know that for some of you, all the “honestly, spending 6 months practicing basic body mechanics and force will give you far stronger acting scenes than you’ll ever be able to do without that foundation” advice in the world isn’t going to keep you away from playing with some acting shots...

So, if you absolutely must do some acting shots (or, better yet, are advanced enough to do acting shots properly), then please, give some attention to the eyes of your character. We’ve probably all heard people say “90% of acting is in the eyes” or something to that effect. Shoot, some of us have said that ourselves. And I actually think that’s true, and is great advice (aside from the fact that if you don’t sell the acting with the body first, all the facial stuff in the world isn’t going to save your scene), but when you hear that “90% of the acting is in the eyes,” I know most people immediately jump to “eye darts” and “eye direction,” etc., completely skipping over one of the most essential acting tools you have - the blink.

When I was in school, I was told that “animated characters should always blink every two seconds.”

Well, that’s just about the worst advice I ever got, other than some advice I recently was given during a trip to Singapore, which was “giant fish eyeballs taste really GREAT,” but animation-wise, I think the “blink every two seconds” is probably the worst. Actually, both of those pieces of advice are equally true (or rather, equally completely-and-utterly-untrue!).

Look around. Do you see anyone who is blinking every 2 seconds?! (If you do, please report them to your government, because chances are they are some kind of android spy from Mars or something.) People don’t blink on any kind of set time schedule anymore than giant fish eyeballs taste “great” (and for all of you out there who maybe think fish eyeballs DO taste great, probably because you have some kind of steel-reinforced taste buds like the Singaporeans I was with at that restaurant -- which I do admire and am completely jealous of, by the way-- then that’s fine to like your giant eyeballs, but just trust me on the blink thing anyway, okay?)

Look - if you do a scene where your character doesn’t blink at all, and don’t have a reason behind it, you have a fair chance of that character feeling a little dead. However, there are plenty of times when you’d WANT the character to not blink -- maybe he’s scared out of his mind, or she’s looking longingly into her husband’s eyes, or you’re doing some homage to A Clockwork Orange...

We’ll get into that stuff in a minute - for now, I just want to point out the reasoning behind the “blink every 2 seconds” rule. Ostensibly, it’s so your character feels alive. That’s the idea they’re shooting for, anyway. Sadly, this is a very outdated concept. If you choose to animate according to this rule, and have every character blink every 2 seconds, two things will happen:

1) First off - congratulations: no one will wonder if your character is dead, or if his eyes are getting enough moisture. Mission (sort of) Accomplished.

2) Instead, they’ll be wondering if your characters are meant to be robots. (D’oh!)

Blinks are so much more than the merely physical act of moistening our eyeballs! We blink for a variety of reasons, and the absolute least important of these reasons to you, as an animator, is the “I’m just getting my eyeballs wet” blink. Forget about that blink. File it away in your head for future use, I guess, but file it in the back of the bottom drawer, right next to “My Aunt Martha’s right eyebrow shoots upwards every time she says ‘pretzel’.” It’ll come up about as often in your work, and be about as useful as well.

People blink for a reason.

Blinks are so much more than any kind of physical dry-eye response.

Blinks are the key to selling many emotions. Fire up some of your favorite films and study the eyes of good actors.

When do they blink?


What does it feel like?

How does it make you feel?

Right off the bat, the number of blinks can affect emotion in dramatic ways. Rapid blinks can make a character feel shy, nervous, uncomfortable, relieved, or like they are about to cry. Not blinking at all can feel angry, stoned, dead, or super intense.

Check out Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump when he’s meeting his son for the first time. As soon as he realizes it’s his son, he stops blinking completely. He’s transfixed. Tom Hanks holds back his blinks to communicate the idea that his character is THAT intense about what he’s realizing. Then a blink, and boom - he’s on to his next emotion, which is guilt. He feels guilty. Shouldn’t he have been there to raise his son? Did he do something wrong? The blinks are coming fast and furious now, to indicate his discomfort, his worry.

Then a thought occurs to him: “is he slow, like me?” He doesn’t say it right away, but you can feel the exact moment that crosses his mind, because suddenly his blinks stop again, and he’s back to that intensity, and finally he works up the courage to ask Jenny his big question: “is he smart, or is he...?” Huge eyes, locked on, almost afraid to hear the answer. “He’s the smartest in his class.” And the blinks are fired back up again, which communicates his relief.

That whole scene is amazing for eye stuff. He even asks “can I go see him?” using only his eyes!

Sure, his head moves barely as well, but it’s 90% just his eyes, and you totally know exactly what he’s saying. He delivers a line without ever opening his mouth. And it feels so real. To me, that’s a great scene, and something we should all aspire to in our work. So your first set of big blink questions is this: “what’s my character’s emotional state right now? What are they reacting to? How is that making them feel?” And your second set of questions, just as important (if not more so) is this: “well, how do I blink when I feel that way? How do my friends blink when they’re in that situation? How did my favorite actor blink in that amazing scene I saw the other day?”

Figure out the emotional state of your character, go observe that emotional state in as true a form as you possible can, and then study the heck out of those eyelids. Better yet, act the scene out over and over and over until you aren’t thinking at all about what the actual dialogue lines are anymore, and all you’re thinking about is the emotion you are truly making yourself feel, and the context/subtext of the scene, and videotape it, and study it! That’s it. It’s pretty simple really. Just like with every single conceivable aspect of your animation, you don’t do ANYTHING without a reason. You don’t move a single finger without knowing why your character is moving it, and the eyes (and sometimes even more importantly, the blinks) are no exceptions. Never move ANYTHING on a character unless you know exactly why you’re moving it. So if anyone ever tells you to animate something randomly, unless it’s the tiniest subtle “add a little ‘dirt’ to this movement so it feels a little less smooth” type of thing, then you should probably say, “No way!” Unless he’s your animation director. Then you probably shouldn’t say, “No way.” That might be a really bad idea. You should instead say “Right away, no problem!” while you silently think “man, I wish my animation director would take some AnimationMentor classes...”

Where was I? Oh yeah - nothing is random. Well, neither are blinks.

The most important use of a blink is to show thought process. We do blink sometimes just to wet our eyes, and we blink on a rapid head turn, we blink on a major change in eye direction, and all those other “blink rules,” but in my opinion the most important time is when we have a change in our thought process. When we’re having an idea, or when we’re switching from one emotion to another, or when we’re realizing something. Those are the gold-mines in terms of blinks - that’s when a perfectly placed blink will take a scene from being merely “good” and make it “great.”

There’s a great book called “In the Blink of An Eye,” by Walter Murch, who is an amazing film editor. Murch is an incredibly accomplished film and sound editor, with a bunch of Oscars on his mantle, and great work in such films as Apocalypse Now, The Godfather Part II, The English Patient, and The Talented Mr. Ripley. Part of that book is about his theory that we blink to edit the film of our lives. We blink throughout the day to cut from one scene to the next to the next to the next. And he uses that theory in his film editing. He looks for when the main character blinks, and often uses that as his cutting point, figuring that it’s probably the most natural-feeling place to cut for the audience.

As animators, we can hijack his theory and apply it to our own work and our acting. We can study the same phenomenon that he noticed, and we will all find the same exact result - people blink when their brain shifts from one thing to another, whether it’s an emotion or a thought.

We blink for a bunch of reasons, but the most important to me are these:

1. We blink when we shift our thought process

2. We blink to show or hide emotion

3. We blink in the middle of a fast head turn

For me, those three things dictate 99.9999% of the blinks I’ve ever animated, and I’ll tell you what - not one of them has anything to do with any “2 Second” rule.

Ok, so let’s start with number 3, since that’s the most basic. This is one that most of you have heard about, and use often. Personally, I think it’s a great rule, and seems to work really well. If your character’s head does a really fast head-turn, drop a blink in there near the middle or near the end of the head turn, and it’ll give it a nice natural feel. This is something I’ve definitely observed in people, and it’s a great rule of thumb to generally keep in mind. I’m not sure why we blink mid-turn, but I think it might have something to do with having too much visual information zooming past our eyes, and our brain says, “Holy moly! Too much information! Gotta shut those things for a moment!” I have no idea if that’s true, but it sounds like it might be right, and that’s good enough for me...

Let’s jump back up to good old numero uno - blinking to show a shift in our thought process.

This is an absolutely essential and endlessly useful tool in animation - something you can truly use over and over again, in shot after shot. Like the idea of advanced “anticipation,” this really can be one of those few “lifelines” of communication you can have with your audience. A way to reach out to them, and whisper, “Hey, check it out! He’s thinking right now! Oooh! And now he’s made up his mind!”

Anyway - back to shifting our though processes...

The eyes are the windows to the soul, right? We’ve talked about that cliche, and how right it is, and how important it is to communicate with your character’s eyes. (I think we have, anyway. Haven’t we? This is month 19, so it’s getting a little fuzzy in my memory! I could look it up, but we both know I’m too lazy to do that...)

Personally, I feel like 70-80% of the emotion of your character is going to be sold in the face, and 90% of THAT emotion will be sold in the eyes. The timing and direction of your eye darts will communicate more than almost any other thing in your scene.

But a HUGE part of that communication is with eye blinks. We can talk more about eyes later, if you guys want, but as far as blinks go, all the great eye animation in the world will not work without carefully planned blinks.

Your character is in a basement. Scared. Backing into a dark corner, unsure of where the villain is hiding. His eyes are wide, darting all over the place, searching frantically. For help. For a way out.

For a weapon. For a hiding place.

So far, so good. No reason to blink, right? He’s scared for his life, searching DESPERATELY for help. His eyes want to suck in as much information as humanly possible, because if they don’t figure something out quick, his eyes might stop seeing anything at all pretty soon.

If you’re animating this scene, you’re going to be taking the “no blinks at all” approach so far in this scene, unless it’s gone on for a REALLY long time. If the eyes are desperate enough, I think you could get away with not blinking for even 10 seconds or more. There are countless scenes of some of our best actors showing their intensity and emotion by not blinking for much longer than 10 seconds, but at some point, a sustained shot of “scared guy” is going to get stale and boring, so I’d say a shot like this will get boring long before you’d HAVE to throw a blink in there...

So, he’s scared and desperate. No blinks yet. His back bumps against concrete, and he realizes he is cornered. His eyes are even wider. Searching. Hoping. Suddenly, they lock on! He spies a shovel! A weapon! He’s found hope!

Guess what he does?

He grabs the shovel, right? Well, yeah, he does, but what does he do first?

He blinks.

Why? Well, it’s sort of the Walter Murch thing. He’s “cutting” his film. His “scared and hopeless” scene has ended, and it’s time for the “try to be a hero” scene, starring him and his shovel. In other words, his thought-process has shifted. He’s gone from one idea to another idea, in his head. He was scared out of his mind, and now his fright has morphed a little bit. It’s evolved. He’s probably still scared, but I bet his eyes are a little narrower, now that he has his shovel in hand. His eyes are darting a lot less. He’s still frightened, but now he’s a little hopeful, and maybe even a little mad. Who is this lunatic hunting him down in his basement?! Who does he think he is!? He’s going to get a face full of shovel if he doesn’t get out right now!


When you first get handed a scene like this, you’re going to study the amount of time you have to work with, you’re going to plan out your motions and timing, figure out your dynamic poses, etc. Just as with any other bit of planning, it’s essential to search through your scene and try to find a moment of change – when an emotion changes, or an idea shifts. These are ALWAYS the meatiest moments for you as an actor and animator, and these are generally the moments when you will carefully choose when to blink. A shift from scared to hopeful? Blink. Happy to nervous? Blink. How about something really subtle, like sad to sadder. Blink!

Those blinks will SELL the changes in thought process more than anything else other than possibly overall posture changes. Ok, and then lastly, we have the idea of using blinks to sell emotions.

Well, let’s go back to our previous example, with the scared basement guy. How do we know he’s scared? Well, hopefully you’re using as many small things as possible to show his fear. Hopefully his movements feel afraid, his head and eyes are darting around, his overall actions and broad movements can even show fear.

But having those wide, unblinking freaked out eyes - THOSE are going to sell the fear as much as anything else. Maybe even more than anything else, right? So right off the bat, we have an emotion being sold through blinks, or rather, through the lack of blinks. What would it look like if he was blinking a lot in the basement? He’d look flustered, maybe he’d look like he’s thinking rapidly about a lot of different ideas, or trying to remember something. He might look shy, or maybe even nervous. But he probably wouldn’t look scared, no matter WHAT you did with the rest of him.

Once Mr. Scared finds his shovel, he blinks to show that realization (and the timing and number of blinks at this point, by the way, will totally define the mood of the performance. A long pause, with two wide-eyed blinks would be funny and played for comedy, whereas a quick blink and dash for the shovel will keep it in the “scary” realm), but now that he has his shovel, we’re going to use our blinks in a whole new way.

He’s still scared, but not so desperate that he can’t blink now and then. Now we’ll have quick “scared” blinks (slower blinks would feel too laid back) now and then, maybe when he’s shifting his gaze from one place to another, or if he hears a sound in the other corner of the basement, etc.

The timing and number of your blinks are an invaluable way of letting your audience know what’s going on in your character’s head. Not only how he’s feeling, but when those feelings are changing.

To me, this concept is one of the most fundamental foundations of any good acting performance, and I think it’s something worthwhile for us all to continue to study and deconstruct.

If you’ve been reading this column since the beginning, you’ve read my tips about scene planning and know how essential it is to plan your performances. Part of that planning should often be video reference, of either yourself or friends or actors. If you truly get into your character’s head, and truly begin to feel the REAL emotions of the scene when you are acting out your video reference, you WILL see the properly placed blinks, showing these shifts in emotion and thought process. If you aren’t sure where to blink, be sure to go through this process, it can be really helpful.

Another great idea is to just study the blinks of your favorite actors. Think of your favorite film, and choose a scene that stood out to you as being especially believable acting. Pull it up on DVD and study the actor’s blinks. Check out Forrest Gump meeting his son for the first time - it’s amazing.

Also, Robin Williams’ blinks and eye-darts in One Hour Photo are great to analyze. Any of your favorite actors will have valuable reference for you to study. Check that stuff out! How does the timing and frequency of the blinks communicate the emotion at just the right precise moment to make it feel true... How does it make you feel? Why?

It’s a great idea to sit down and really study that stuff. Make notes for yourself, and really dig into it. You don’t have to be an acting expert to find value in that reference, it can really be helpful.

Let’s see, to recap:

1. Blinks Have Meaning!

2. Skipping a strong foundation in the basics in order to get to acting scenes quicker shoots yourself in the foot.

3. Never animate anything without a reason.

4. Don’t say “No way!” to an Animation Director.

5. We blink to cut the “film of our life.”

If you have an opinion about what kinds of “tips” or more “tricks” you’d like to see in the future, email me at: tipsandtricks@

animationmentor.com and let me know!

That’s 5 tips for the price of one. I better start being stingier or this’ll be a short-lived column!

Hope you found it helpful. See you next time!


  1. Thanks so much for this post! I was doing some research on just this gives me just what I was looking for. An intuitive and more natural approach.

  2. No worries! Glad to see others are finding this blog helpful!! If you haven't checked Shawn's eBooks on Animation Tips and Tricks. They're free to download and they're priceless!