In character design, eyes (and fur) are the windows to the soul

Personality, realistic looks help animation artists distinguish characters

“Cars” zoomed to the top of the box office and “Monster House” scared plenty of kids, but thanks to a plethora of animated-animal stories, critters ruled the 2006 toon scene. So how do the animation artists distinguish their characters?

“You have to give them personality, and make them look and move realistically,” says “Happy Feet” director George Miller, “and that’s always a very difficult thing to do successfully, especially if you have feathers or fur.” For example, Miller gave his lead character, Mumble, blue eyes so auds could tell him apart from other penguins.

No matter how detailed the character design (Mumble has more than 6 million feathers), animators seem to concentrate the majority of their attention on the eyes.

“Nothing’s truer than the old saying, ‘The eyes are the window to the soul,’ ” says Tim Johnson, co-director of “Over the Hedge.” “Whether it’s live-action or animation, the tiniest of squints or eyebrow-raising can show thoughts or shock.”

That explains why, in the transition from Mickey Mouse-style 2-D character design to CG cartoons, eyes have evolved from simple black dots to striking, jeweled irises. “A lot of animals have (eyes) on the side of their heads, so you have to flatten those faces and humanize them,” Johnson explains.

In anthropomorphizing four-wheeled autos for “Cars,” director John Lasseter tried using the wide-spaced headlights as eyes, but it gave the cars a snakelike appearance, he says. “By moving the eyes into the windshield, it made the entire car the head of the character.”

But the bodies matter, too. Now that software is capable of rendering photorealistic fur, animators have total creative freedom in character design. DreamWorks animators ignored fur altogether on “Flushed Away,” giving the rats the same smooth, claylike surface of the stop-motion characters in Aardman’s “Chicken Run,” but chose to create detailed coats for a wide variety of animals in “Over the Hedge.”

“Every character had a different tactile quality, from the soft downiness of the possum to the bristly porcupine,” Johnson says, “and we wanted to make each one distinct, and to have a sense of the fur’s weight and thickness, and what it would feel like to touch them.”

Likewise, the level of detail in the prehistoric animals of “Ice Age: The Meltdown” demonstrate just how far Fox’s animation technology has evolved since the first film, in which the fur was more stylized.

But such design decisions are secondary, says “Ice Age” animation supervisor Michael Thurmeier. “You don’t want to lose that sense of ‘cartoon fun’ just because you can do fur better and more realistically. So we really stretched some of the characters around on the frame. It’s very fluid, organic stuff that’s a real throwback to the old Warner Bros. style of animation.”