animation tips for smiles

Too Many Lid Tightener Smiles

Just watched the first episode of Marvel’s What If…? and noticed a common cliche in animation: lid tightener smiles.
Captain Carter smile Marvel
Captain Carter smile Marvel animated with lid tightener
In real life, there is no one right way to communicate a smile, and the ways in which we smile vary on both individual and contextual levels. However, in animation specifically, there is a trend to overemphasize the medial lower lid when attempting to communicate joy-based expressions.
A large portion of genuine joy-based expressions possess two key facial movements: cheek raiser and lip corner puller. Though one or both of these components may be absent, we tend to assume authenticity when we see both.
While lid tightener smiles employ the same muscle as cheek raiser smiles, the emphasis on deformation and movement is different. As covered here, cheek raiser’s main emphasis is on the lateral eye corners and cheeks, creating a pinching like compression around the eyes; lid lightener tends to focus on the lower lid, directing the movement upward and medially toward the inner eye corners.

Avoiding the Cliches

The tendency to exaggerate lid tightener-like qualities during moments intended to express happiness or sentimentalism results in a look a little too close to the infamous “smizing” expression. Such a look may please Tyra Banks, but this isn’t America’s Next Top Model.
Elsa smile Disney Frozen with lid tightener
Elsa smile animated Disney Frozen with lid tightener
In the future, I’d like to see some more cheek raiser in animation. Even if you leave out the cheek movement (which is acceptable for 2D but not for 3D), you can still easily convey the lateral pinching.
The purpose of this callout is not to claim all animated smiles need to be done a specific way every time. Variety and creativity are paramount. However, I don’t see much variety. Instead, I see a go-to move that leaves characters looking insincere and trite.
NOTE: This is not a call to prioritize anatomy over stylization. It’s a critique of a trend that could benefit from some variation. It is, after all, possible to be both appealing and follow principles of expression perception.

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