This is an excerpt from Tom Bancroft’s Character Mentor. In Character Mentor, Tom explores the use of expressions, poses, and staging to bring characters to life. This excerpt takes a closer look at the mouth in a character’s facial expression.
Here is an analogy to illustrate the importance of the mouth in the facial expression hierarchy: if the face were a sentence, the eyes would be the noun, the eyebrows would be the verb, and the mouth would be the punctuation. Why? Because the mouth helps define the emotion behind the expression. Here is an experiment you can try on your own. Draw a face with just the eyes and eyebrows drawn in. Do about six of them, all with different eye expressions. Do they communicate the expression clearly?
Yes and no, right? They communicate the most obvious emotion. Or maybe you read one emotion, and I would see something different. Your mind fills in the mouth that it most commonly associates with that particular eye expression. Here are some of the same eye expressions with mouth shapes added that seem to fit. Is this the facial emotion you pictured?
But, to get a bit more subtlety and variety, try some different mouth combinations and see what emotions you get. For fun, try more and see how far you can go.
Different mouths project slightly – or very – different emotions. That’s why the mouth is the question mark or exclamation mark of the “emotional sentence”! Additionally, remember that the mouth and jaw work together. Many artists forget to extend the shape of the face when opening the jaw. This method is especially useful when animating dialogue mouth shapes.
Tom Bancroft is a 30 year veteran of the animation industry. In his artistic career he has specialized in children’s character designs, animation, video game development, and comic books. Formerly, he worked at Walt Disney Feature Animation for twelve years, animating on new Disney classics, including Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, Aladdin, Pocahontas, Mulan, Brother Bear, and more. He is the author of the popular character design book Creating Characters with Personality: For Film, TV, Animation, Video Games, and Graphic Novels.