I’ve gotten a few nice comments about the design of the robot dog, which is good, because I think a lot of how well the movie works will hinge on the effectiveness of this character. I’m pretty happy with the way he’s turning out, and I thought I’d write a post about my thoughts on the design, in particular the eyes.
I had something fairly specific in mind when I started working on the design. I wanted to capture a blankness that is at the same time somewhat dopey, somewhat cute, and—from the right angles, in the right light—somewhat menacing. In fact, in a lot of ways I was looking for something that’s not all that different from the look you see in the eyes of, well, actual dogs.
And also robots. At least, certain robots. And the robot that was the biggest single influence was also a character that I had a hand in designing: the Home Econominator from Gustav Braustache and the Auto-Debilitator. I say “had a hand in designing” because I honestly don’t remember whether it was me or my filmmaking partner Rob Cunningham who got the bright idea to turn a twin lens reflex camera on its side and stick it on top of a vacuum cleaner head to make the robot’s face. Like a lot of things about that movie, there was more than a small element of serendipity in that character design, but it turned out to work just right.
This design isn’t unprecedented, of course. There’s Dr Bunsen Honeydew:
And there’s the hatchetfish. Which, although it isn’t strictly speaking a character design, exactly, it may as well be. I can vividly remember the first time as a bookish, unsuspecting kid in the St. Anthony School library I opened up an illustrated encyclopedia of fish to a big spread on this bad boy and gave myself nightmares for weeks:
I’m sure that in addition to The Tick, Dr. Bunsen Honeydew, and hatchetfish, there are other precedents as well. I have a feeling there’s a Far Side character named Billy who would fit the bill.
There are a few false friends as well though. Even as I was designing the dog-bot I was aware of superficial similarities between his eyes and those of Wall-E, which is a character design that I love also. But they aren’t really anything alike. The big difference of course is the presence of pupils and irises, which Wall-E definitely has.
And speaking of apparent influences that aren’t really influences, let’s face it: nobody was ever really influenced by Johnny 5 from Short Circuit. I don’t even need Andrew Stanton to explicitly deny it. I guess in its day it was regarded as a poor man’s ET but in a robot, but that character design never did anything for me at all.
It’s interesting to note the difference the presence of pupils make. One of my early design attempts for the dog-bot used headlight textures for eyes, which would have resulted in something quite similar to C3PO, but with the crucial difference of pupils. As you can see here, those pupils really make C3PO who he is. Relatable, engaged, and fundamentally human. Basically the opposite of the (all things considered fairly similarly designed) Maria from Metropolis.
So now’s the time where I wonder out loud, why? In the annals of character design it’s well known that certain physical characteristics indicate certain aspects of character. (Like it or not, this is actually the whole point of cartoons). Cute characters have the big heads, widely spaced eyes, small noses and mouths, and short limbs of actual babies and children. Tough-guy characters have no necks, etc., just like, well, real tough guys. So why do pupil-less characters like The Tick or Bunsen Honeydew have this dopey out-of-touchness going on?
There are a number of other blank-eyed tropes. There’s the rolled-up white eyes of horror movies, which resemble the kind of rolled eyes you might see in someone having a nasty seizure, which is probably pretty scary in real life. There’s the prophet eye, which suggests blindness from cataracts (and by extension supernatural powers). And there’s the blank-eyed surprise look that you see in (usually brief) reaction shots in Japanese anime. But these are all pretty different from the one I’m talking about.
Your guess is as good as mine, but it may or may not be related to something else I’ve wondered from time to time. Why do dogs and other animals eyes seem to expose so little eye white? Horses’ and cows’ eyes, for example, always seem to be about 90 percent dark iris. I’m not sure why this is, but it does seem that the little dot amid the white field is a distinctly human look for an eye. Maybe for this reason an eye without a distinctive iris and pupil might tend to give off a dumb-animal feeling.
Any thoughts, further examples, or counterexamples are welcome.