Friday, January 8, 2010

The Human Face

By Kate

Do you feel what I feel on seeing this picture? That little knot in the heart. That subtle pang between the eyebrows.

I am often amazed at what an image of a human face, even completely out of context, can evoke in another person.

Psychologists call it emotional contagion. The theory roughly goes like this. We human beings have an innate tendency to mimic the faces (and postures and prosodies, etc.) of our conspecies with which we're interfacing. As we view others' faces, our own facial musculature instinctively assumes certain aspects of the expressions on them. The subtle muscle tones generated this way in turn create a feedback to our system and thereby produce the very emotion that is associated with the original facial expression.

An interesting theory, although I question if we have to actually mimic the faces in order to be infected with the emotions expressed on them. My own suspicion (as an armchair non-working psychologist) is that evolution must have endowed us with a much more direct route to be attuned with others around us. (In any case, I haven't encountered any empirical evidence that emotional contagion requires actual mimicry.)

Anyways, here is another image of the same actress in the same movie. (You guessed it, it is Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. A fine movie, not my favorite, but that's not the point.)

Her expression is much subtler here. Barely noticeable. But this face still communicates something and draws you in. This is not just because this is a beautiful face (although I'm sure it helps tremendously). Look at the doll version of the same character.

This should be at least as beautiful as the original face, but it hardly does anything to me. I am completely disengaged.

By now some of you (if there is any of you stayed with me until this point) must have sensed where I'm going, given that this blog is about machinima, supposedly. Yes, I sometimes wonder if machinima can ever be as effective as live action films without real human faces -- these exquisite communication devices that bypass your mind and reason and speak directly to your heart. That powerful equipment tested and retested, modified, and built into the very core of who we are, through millions of years of evolution.

At this point I suggest that you watch the following video by Phil "Overman" Rice. (It's really funny anyway.)

So I Ran Over a Monkey from Phil Rice on Vimeo.

It's amusing and amazing. His facial expression at 4:17 into the movie... That subtle mixture of shame, regret and self defense as guilt slowly dawns on him in the process of seeking an escape but finding none. It's all there in that complex human face! Alright. I'm talking nonsense. But you must have gotten the point if you watched the movie. What a great choice it was to put his real face on the screen! Can we ever achieve this level of expressiveness with animated faces? Maybe some Pixar geniuses, possibly. But I doubt any animated machinima actor ever got close to the performance of Overman in So I Ran Over a Monkey, and we're not talking about a professional actor here. Seriously. (Well, the only exception I can think of is the perfectly neutral machinima face I love to use and overuse to the point of an abuse for the Kuleshov effect.)

So what's my point? That machinima is doomed? I suffer from my share of negativity, but I'm not that self-destructive. At least not in public. Whereas I do think machinima suffers from a heavy handicap for being deprived of the magic of the human face, I can see a number of ways in which machinima makers can overcome this shortcoming. Some further thoughts on this matter would make a good topic for my next blog. But now, I end this post with something that I hope would make you feel a little bit better.


Kate Fosk and Michael R. Joyce said...

It must BE possible to transmit emotion indirectly, without subtle facial expression, or we wouldn't identify so strongly with puppets etc.
Maybe the human face is so complex a signalling device that it sends out too much information, much of it contradictory and confusing?
We could see animation as a simplification of those multiple signals. We have the opportunity not to get in the viewer's way? - Kate

Richard Grove said...

I really enjoyed this post, but I think that you over-emphasize realism in art. You don't have to have a realistic face in order to produce the effect you are explaining here. Look at Totoro by Miyazaki. The main character is a nature god. In a scene waiting for a bus with the little girl, he uses her umbrella to ward off the rain. Totoro's face conveys all kinds of emotion and yet not all of them are animated.

My point is that we read in feelings for characters because the filmmaker has created a world/character we believe in that's consistent and "real" in that world.

Kate's point is well made and I agree. You don't need complex facial emotions to feel for an animated character.

Norrie said...

Watch (the dreadfully appalling) Beowulf for an example of great faces, dead eyes.

I watched a machinima film last year that had me bubbling inconsolably... sadly I can't remember what it was.
I remember that a puppet sacrificed himself for other puppets. It was stunning.

I agree with Richard: realism doesn't equal emotion: if it did Disney wold never have succeeded! You didn't tear up when Bambi's mother died? Or the heart-wrenching elephant seperation in Dumbo?

I forgot where I'm going here! Maybe I'm just a softy.

(if anyone can link that film I mentioned? I know I was vague.)

Russell Boyd said...

Yep Norrie, Beowulf wsa an eye opener for me, if you'll excuse the pun. Even watched it in 3d with the family and all of thought cool, but no emotional involvement. Except perhaps some shots of the animated Angelina :)

So, we recently just watched Up, cos it was Christmas and you're supposed to watch goofy films. Every one of us laughed and welled up.

So is our mistake trying to make machinima humans look too real?

Agree with Kate too, there are many more ways to make an emotional connection without the use of faces. I have been invloved with at least one film where there were no human animations at all (just aircraft) and people were moved.

I look forward to the next post and your ideas :)

Norrie said...

Not that I'm obsessive, but it's now 4AM and I found the film I mentioned earlier!

No faces, arguably no humans, but it moved me.

Now maybe I can sleep :)

Chat Noir Studios said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Chat Noir Studios said...

Thank you very much for reading and sharing your thoughts.

As I alluded at the end of the post, this was the beginning of a series of blogs I'm planning to write (about various ways in which films, and perhaps machinima, may elicit emotions).

I stand by my position that a human face is a very effective communicator and elicitor of emotions, and that this serves the film as a medium very well. That said, I do not claim that the presentation of a real human emotional display is the only way, or even the most effective way, in which films (and other related media) elicit an emotion in the viewer. It just fascinates me that mere facial expressions, standing alone, can do so much.

I have a lot more I'd like to say about human face and cinema, but will move on to the next topic in my next blog.


P.S. Norrie, that was an excellent movie. (But is it a machinima?)

P.P.S. Norrie, I wouldn't call a face "great" when its eyes are dead! :) For me the eyes are 90% of the face. In movies anyway.

IceAxe said...

I've never really thought about this before - thanks for raising it as an issue.
They say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and so too is communication - partly at least. I'm sure there have been studies which show the diversity of reactions that individuals have to static photographs of faces - so what you feel when you see a face contorted by emotion may not be the same as someone else (a fearful smile vs. a happy smile for example).
Plus, I think that what you see is only part of the communication of emotion. Phil's Monkey movie is funny (thanks for flagging it, I'd not seen it before), but play the movie with your eyes closed. Apart from the closing scenes where we learn the truth, most of the emotion is imparted rather well and this is a testament to how well he uses his voice to express emotion too. At the end of the day, emotion is conveyed by a whole package of "stuff"; facial expression, vocal expression, posture, etc.
Will machinima ever be able to cross the divide to match real humans? Probably not, but isn't it amazing how good graphics engines have become, and I'm optimistic that we haven't reached the plateau yet!