Notes on character design: Dog-bot eyes

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.

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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.

ImageI don’t think it was ever consciously acknowledged by either of us, but I think maybe the single biggest influence on the eyes of that character was a character that was neither a dog nor a robot, but a tick. Or rather, a superhero with a tick shtick. Specifically, The Tick, which was (and in my mind will always be) a comic book that both Rob and I read religiously in college. I never saw the animated version, or—god forbid—the live-action version. The comic book was hilarious stuff, though, and maybe the funniest aspect of it for me was the way the character’s eyes were designed. The oddly shaped, pupil-and-irisless orboids that tell you in no uncertain terms that you are dealing with an utter idiot. One with the best intentions who could easily become the source of all kinds of unpleasantness without ever especially meaning to.

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This design isn’t unprecedented, of course. There’s Dr Bunsen Honeydew:

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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5 Responses to “Notes on character design: Dog-bot eyes”

  1. Interesting post, Tony.

    The connection that I make when I see blank eyes – is well, the lack of connection. It’s that the eyes are somehow ‘off.’

    In real life, when people give you that glassy look, it either means they’re not engaged on some level – mentally, or emotionally. It might mean that they’re might be otherwise distracted, out of it, dopey, or mean.

    So when you have a conversation with someone, and they’re not looking where you’d expect them to be looking, you start to sense that something’s wrong.

    And the way you judge whether someone’s looking in the right place, or looking at you in the right way, has to do with the expressiveness of the eyes – the common thread is the ‘appropriate’ contraction of the pupil.

    We can see from the size of someone’s pupils extremely accurately if they’re not focusing on our own. We can sense if the focus point is off, because the pupils are too big or two small.

    And there’s also the matter of whether their eyes are behaving with the appropriately expressiveness. Are the pupils shrinking while they’re smiling? And then, by extension, the face: not seeing microexpressions where there should be? (Particularly the purportedly ‘unfakeable’ smile lines around the eye). Might be a sociopath.

    The blank eye is not so far removed from a blank face.

    We humans need to be able to ‘read’ the other. Our ability to read another’s emotions is connected to whether their eyes are behaving in a way that makes emotional sense. If their behavior’s off, our mirror neurons are left hanging, trying to decode what’s going on.

    As for animals, I’m always amazed how much they do seem to understand – despite having large pupils. They don’t look dumb to me.

    • By jing, Heath, I think you’ve nailed it. You’re right, people are super sensitive to where other people are looking. In fact, it even makes sense to wonder if human’s small-iris-big-white eyes evolved specifically to enable this, because our social nature makes it an advantage to be understood and for others to feel a connection to us. It would be much less of an advantage for other animals to be so easy to read. And indeed, when I think of dogs looking at me, there is always a very slight feeling of vagueness, like they could be looking at somebody just over my shoulder.

      This actually also explains another thing that occurred to me when I thought about Dr. Bunsen Honeydew and Billy from the Far Side, which is the coke-bottle-glasses effect. Which is actually very similar to the blank-eyes effect I’m talking about, but there’s really nothing animalistic or even dumb about it, just disconnected. But your explanation covers that nicely also. Thick, distorting glasses make it hard to read people’s gaze. In fact, my dog-bot eye design is probably best classified along with coke-bottle glasses. Which reminds me of another great “character design” that had a big impact on me as a youngster:

      One thing I’m wondering though. Do we really read focus from pupil size? Pupil size would seem to me to indicate exposure. I think pupils do dilate when people see something exciting, and so I believe they help express emotion, but I can’t quite see how they’d give away focus. My guess is that what we’re actually doing is comparing the direction of the right eye and the left eye and sort of triangulating to the point in space where they are both looking. Which would also be facilitated by all that extra eye white.

      Come to think of it, the old racist slit-eyed Asian trope also had similar elements. It had the same disconnectedness, but it had an added component of (usually malicious) glee.

  2. Yeah, the triangulation thing makes sense. Maybe it’s a combination of factors.

    Re: pupil size/ emotion – pupils do express one’s feelings to an extent (they dilate when they see someone they love – resulting in what… a more out-of-focus image and more onus on the brain to extrapolate? Beauty in the eye of the beholder?)…

    Creepy link -> http://www.wikihow.com/Dilate-or-Shrink-Your-Pupils-on-Command

  3. Rob Cunningham Says:

    I agree with the theory that humans show more whites of their eyes because we’ve evolved to function as social beings. This would also explain why ants have such expressive eyes. Then on the flip side, reasons for animals to not show eye whites could be that it’s better to not have a competitor or prey know where you’re looking. Like poker players wearing dark sunglasses. And eyes are soft vulnerable things, so you’d want to maximize the functional part of them, the pupils/iris, while minimizing the overall size of the exposed portion of the eye if you’re doing a lot of fighting. Although after Googling it turns out the whites of the eyes, or sclera, of a lot of other animals is dark instead of white.

  4. Good word, Rob! Sclera. And sure enough, from Wikipedia:

    “Human eyes are somewhat distinctive in the animal kingdom in that the sclera is very plainly visible whenever the eye is open. This is not just due to the white color of the human sclera, which many other species share, but also to the fact that the human iris is relatively small and comprises a significantly smaller portion of the exposed eye surface compared to other animals. It is theorized that this adaptation evolved because of our social nature as the eye became a useful communication tool in addition to a sensory organ. It is believed that the conspicuous sclera of the human eye makes it easier for one individual to infer where another individual is looking, increasing the efficacy of this particular form of nonverbal communication.[4] Animal researchers have also found that, in the course of their domestication, dogs have also developed the ability to pick up visual cues from the eyes of humans, making them one of only two species known to seek visual cues from another individual’s eyes. Dogs do not seem to use this form of communication with one another and only look for visual information from the eyes of humans.[5]”

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