Why Visuals Are The All-Important Way Of Expressing Character Emotion

I need to begin this post by pointing out that that displaying emotion in a character is not the same as displaying attitude, something I discussed here and based on Michael Sporn’s original post.

In animation, when it comes to displaying emotions, the simplified or rudimentary character designs often necessitates the use of exaggerated facial expressions or whole-bod movements to convey the correct message, This is why the eyes of Tex Avery’s wolf always jump out of their sockets by about a hundred feet and why the Looney Tunes always jump a mile in the air when startled.

For today’s study, I will use the awesome comic by Faith Erin Hicks that is Superhero Girl. As you might expect, it’s quite a visual comic however the strip I have chosen does not contain any traditional superhero battles, punches or even feats of heroic strength. No, it’s a great example of just some of the emotions that characters have to convey and how even in a simplified form, the reader can fully interpret them.

Staring off with frame one. Here’s Superhero Girl conked out in bed. Besides the requisite zzzzs, there’s a gaping, drooling mouth and a pair of closed eyes.

All of these are the traditional elements of classic cartoon/comic sleeping poses. Walt Disney took some liberties with the Seven Dwarfs and their goofy sleeping positions, but there is no need for that here.

There is little if any emotion in this scene but it is safe to say that our protagonist is content enough in her own little world.

Onto frame two, and we have two poses. The first is the single eye focused exclusively on the ringing phone. There is little if any detail, but we can assume that the call is an unwelcome intrusion.

The second frame is an establishing shot. There isn’t much that could have been done as there is no need to show any emotion although the raised eyebrows, sideways glance and un-smiling expression suggests that there is some apprehension present.

Sometimes a frame or shot like this can be off-balanced as the animator or artist tries too hard to inject some excitement where none is needed. Getting something like this wrong is all too easy to do. It’s better to play it safe, no-one will be bothered by something that doesn’t seem out of place.

Onto frame 3 and we’ve got a smile! A big one at that too. Smiles are perhaps the easiest way to express emotion. Everyone smiles when they are happy and we all have a deep-down desire to be happy, right?

Although this is a relatively far shot, there is no need for a lot of detail. The emotion is easy to read from here. As is the slight apprehension that lingers in the leg-hold.

Sometimes a gesture like that would not even be present. The reader may not even notice it. However, small things like that have a habit of affecting the reader/viewer in ways that they may not consciously notice or appreciate.

This next frame is a great one. The extra-wide smile is a full grin, brimming with a certain kind of confidence. The tilted pose is another common trait. For me, it seems to suggest a kind of care-free feeling in that the character is not too pre-occupied with looking proper and formal.

The gaze upwards and away belies the nature of the frame and indeed, the very conversation that is going on. The sense of everything-is-not-as-it-seems permeates the scene.

Again, the simple pose and details of the frame say are a very important part of the frame as a whole. Without it, the words would be read in an entirely different tone that would lose the special meaning they carry here.

Back again to the full shot with the big smile. This differs from the previous panel in that there is no leg hold. The frame seems much more natural and our hero appears much more at ease with herself. The apprehension has vanished to be replaced by the reassuring conversation she is having on the phone.

This frame is another simple one and again, it is an excellent example of less is more. Sure, the conversation could have been done without the need for another smiling shot, but I think it adds much to the story and leads the reader into accepting the same sense of security and happiness as the character.A far-away shot with a frowny face pretty much says it all.

In these dual frames, we have a setup and a reaction. The first clearly displays dissatisfaction. There is no need for much detail here. The lowered eyebrows and puckered up mouth are proof enough of that.

The second frame provides a bit more necessary detail. The sullen expression tells us all we need to know about the character. The pose is irrelevant here and isn’t shown.

The upward gaze is directed straight ahead, almost at the reader themselves perhaps to convey the feeling of annoyance or maybe resentment.

A gaze like this does not at all convey ‘attitude’. Rather it convey emotion. Superhero Girl is annoyed for a reason, she is not pulling a face like this just for the sake of it. Faith has drawn a great scene that hits the nail right on the head.

From that rather pedantic look we move to one of awful shock and fear. The eyes are wide open, the mouth is agape in horror.

I think the face says it all really, although the raised right hand suggests an attempt to grab at something.

The wide-eyed stare is one of the exaggerations that animated and comic characters do great. It works very well as a statement of fear or shock and continues to be used for precisely this reason.

The fact that she appears to be staring into the distance as well contrasts nicely with the previous frame where the reader appeared to be given her attention.

And lastly:

This far-off shot sums her predicament up nicely and the expression is appropriate in its lack of detail. The arm hanging by the side. the lowered eyebrows almost resigned to the inevitable reinforce how she feels without calling attention to themselves.

So anyways, this particular strip serves as a great example on how characters are called upon to display a wide array of emotions and how the visual look and pose of the character can be the most important way of conveying those emotions to the reader. The same goes for animation with the only difference being that the characters are in full-motion in between the frames.

This post does not attempt to outlay any particular guidelines when it comes to displaying emotion, it simply implores you to use it well because it really can make or break a character.

As you can probably tell, I like this strip a lot, mainly because of the wide range of emotions on display. It’s not that they speak to me in any special way, I just happen to like they way the strip as a whole is drawn. So much so, that I bought the original.




2 thoughts on “Why Visuals Are The All-Important Way Of Expressing Character Emotion

Leave a Response

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.