As a child, you may remember those pictures with six or seven emotions that you had to recognize as sad, happy, angry, surprised, etc. Growing up, you soon realize that detecting and interpreting facial expressions is a lot more complicated than that.


The best animators and artists know that if you want to create realistic artwork, you need to study real-life examples. It’s why many art students take human anatomy and draw from real models. For facial animation, studying human expressions is key even to the computer animation process, but how many do humans really have?

The question has been studied and debated for years in the art and animation world.

A History of Expression Research

The first to research the nuanced topic of expressions was Paul Ekman. Ekman, who studied the relationship of emotions and expressions extensively, is now lauded as the “best human lie detector in the world.” He spent 50 years studying what are called “micro expressions,” which are small inflections of the face that are categorized into emotions. Over his years of research, he catalogued over 10,000 expressions.

Ekman traveled the world with his research. He wanted to prove that expressions are not learned or determined by one’s culture, rather, they are innate and common throughout the human species. To test this, he set off to New Guinea. There, he developed a series of tests with the locals as subjects. A translator asked a native man a series of questions to elicit emotional responses. Each expression that the New Guinea man made were synonymous with expressions made by American subjects, even though he had never traveled, interacted or been exposed to one before.

Ekman went on to use his expression identification skills in the CIA and the FBI, while others went on to continue his research.

Latest Studies

For years, scientists like Ekman held that humans had six basic emotions: happy, sad, angry, disgusted, scared, surprised. New studies have identified compound emotions that take the total up to over 20. The hypothesis was that people rarely feel only one emotion at a given time.

To study this, researchers asked more than 230 volunteers to make faces to match the following 20 expressions: “happy, sad, fearful, angry, surprised, disgusted, happily surprised, happily disgusted, sadly fearful, sadly angry, sadly surprised, sadly disgusted, fearfully angry, fearfully surprised, fearfully disgusted, angrily surprised, angrily disgusted, disgustedly surprised, hatred, and awed.”

The researchers found that while humans have six basic emotions, there are acute “action units,” or smaller movements, that can be combined for compound emotions. An example would be if someone were happily surprised to walk in on their friends hosting a surprise party. This person would display raised eyebrows and a smiling, upturned mouth, which embodies both a surprised and a happy expression.

Animating Expressions

Understanding the basics of human emotion is essential to animating characters that look alive. Researchers have identified 20, not just six, basic emotions that humans portray. As Ekman’s research has shown, there are tens of thousands of more complex emotions to consider.

In other words, facial animators have their work cut out for them. The first step in becoming adept in facial animation is through real-life observation.

Observing real subjects─how they carry themselves, speak and interact─can inspire you to animate more lively characters. This can be as simple as people watching in your neighborhood coffee shop, or as intensive as selecting interesting people of your own life to observe. Other animators have even filmed or watched their own expressions in a mirror

However, as an animator, it can be hard to find the time to study real-life observation. Fortunately, animation technology like NaturalFront produces real-life faces in seconds, taking a large chunk of the workload off of animators. There is also a wide-range of stored facial expressions and options to make adjustments and create their own.