Building a realistic face in 3D animation is tough. Real tough. The face has more than 40 muscles, each moving independently to express happiness, confusion, or fear. There are fine hairs peppering a gentleman’s chin or coloring a woman’s arched brow. Skin is textured, freckled, and wrinkled. The eyes must convey light and shadow, intelligence and emotion. And don’t forget the hundreds of other variables like light sources, sweat, pores, teeth, and matching a speaking character’s lips to its voice.

3D facial animation

The first attempts at developing computerized methods for animating faces may have begun in the 1970s, but the art of creating realistic 3D faces has made leaps and bounds in just the last decade. Jeff Capogreco, an animation supervisor with the Lord of the Rings franchise, worked to develop the detailed characters of Middle Earth. Developing the character of Gollum, who was created using motion capture technology on both the body and face, was drastically different between his first appearance and The Desolation of Smaug. “Ten years ago, the movement we could capture was more linear, not as fluid. The capture is so much more advanced now,” he said in an interview with Computer Graphics World.

Facial Animation Technique

The techniques used in creating facial expressions for animation fall into two main areas: the collection of animation data, and the application of that data to build a character.
Creating facial expressions for animationBefore an animator can design the character, there is information that he or she must collect. Motion capture, using live actors to record the movements of characters, is one way; Andy Serkis’ memorable performance as Gollum is a definitive example. Serkis acted the role in a bodysuit covered with sensors, which captured the minute movements of his body and face. Another method of collecting data pre-animation is keyframing. Animators create an in-depth storyboard, capturing frames that signal the beginning and end of critical movements.
Applying that data to create animations is the second stage. Skeletal animation is creating a skeleton, or rig, upon which the surface of the animation will be designed. Morph target animation, or blend shapes, blends images together to create moving figures.

Why Spend All This Time on Faces?

Detailed animations capture our imagination. From Snow White’s delicate features in the 1937 Disney film to the subtle emotions flickering across Elsa’s face in the recent mega-hit Frozen, great animation in film is a delight. But animation, especially the 3D variety, can be used for so much more than just film. 
character animation


3D animation for marketing, sales, and brand awareness is rapidly growing in popularity.  Eye-catching animated commercials are popping up on television and computer screens everywhere. Other brands are placing their 3D mascots into the real world. The Geico Gecko, the Aflac Duck, or the M&M characters grab attention, and watching them interact with real people and situations is hilarious and engaging.


The world of learning is evolving, with an emphasis on social interaction and hands-on learning. More and more schools are acquiring tablets, to bring mobile education into their classrooms. Developers are building apps that bring learning to life using educational 3D characters to interact with students.


Businesses are taking advantage of 3D animation to train their employees, or to teach customers how to use their products. Cosmetics and fashion companies, medical manufacturing firms, and other businesses are all on the cusp of breaking into this new approach to customer interaction. The more realistic the animation, the better the teaching tool.
3D game character


More and more games developed for iTunes and Android are being designed in 3D. The mega success of games like Clash of Clans and The Sims FreePlay has encouraged other developers to commit to creating stunning 3D games. The faces in both games are lifelike and interesting, bringing a human element to play. In a competitive market, finding a visual edge can be the key to viral success. Mobile games with fantastic 3D graphics have a leg-up over their 2D competitors.
Facial animation is an integral part of character animation. It defines the expression and emotions of characters.

To learn more about the benefits of creating life-like 3D faces and animations, contact our team today.

Tags: Facial Animation, Animating face expressions, Face animation, Character animation, 2D animation, 3D animation, skeletal animation