Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Baby-Face Bias

I've seen a few different people complaining about the similarity between Disney heroines, and while I don't want to join in on that debate, I feel now's a great time to talk about why so many protagonists in animated movies have baby faces or child-like features.

As for why the girls in Frozen look so similar to Rapunzel, the reason seems so obvious that I'm surprised I even have to point it out:
I'm not saying the designers were going for this. But millions and millions and millions of dollars in Rapunzel merchandise was looming unspoken over every character decision on Frozen. Even if it was spoken, I can't blame anyone for riding that money train while it's barreling along.
But enough of that. What I want to talk about is called Baby-Face Bias. The word bias in there makes it sound like a bad thing, but this principle is awesome because it allows designers to use the natural conclusions people make when seeing a character for the first time, and helps us to predict the lens through which the audience will view that character's actions as they develop. It's not entirely clear how much of baby-face bias is innate and how much is learned, but it appears to be true across cultures.

To understand this, you have to first understand that most character designs are not meant to be a reflection of real life. They are symbols of real things, exaggerated to create the illusion of life. There are lots of reasons for using symbols in design, including the uncanny valley, but I won't talk about that now.
This is an eye.
This is not an eye. It's just a symbol that we understand to mean "eye."
Once you recognize that you're working in symbols, you can start thinking about how you can manipulate those symbols to say what you want, sort of like letters turning into words, and then words turning into sentences.

To understand what baby-face bias tells us about the character, let's compare against the biases that come with a mature face.

These proportions and shapes tell us that this character is able, experienced, and established. You might rely on these shapes and proportional relationships to design a character that is capable and cunning. In fact, use them all at once and your character might be seen as too "streetwise" to be trustworthy.
In contrast, a baby-face says the character is naive, helpless, and forthright. We naturally see that character as having a not-completely-formed identity, or as having a destiny that is not yet defined.

So why are baby-faced features so popular in animated protagonists? Well, the large eyes and big head definitely help make the character readable from multiple distances, but I don't think that's the fundamental reason why.

Most children's movies are about characters who are searching for their destiny or identity, or who are earnest-hearted characters facing a difficult or indifferent world. The characters then are designed to fit the stories, and the similarity in the stories naturally result in similarities in the characters.

That said, very few characters actually go full baby-face; most mix elements together to achieve a character that combines the right elements of experience, capability, innocence, and development. I picked mostly male examples because I wanted to show that baby-face isn't just used on female characters, although I do think most animated films tend to lean more heavily on baby-faced features for women (not just Disney).
Look at the difference between Robin Hood (protagonist) and Little John (sidekick). As capable as Robin Hood is, he's basically a kid, innocent, honest, and unspoiled by the world. Little John is a bit more wary and established: he is who he is already, no character arc to be expected.  

Aladdin's mostly adult shaped face---but with somewhat rounded chin, larger head and baby eyes---supports a character that can be capable and crafty, but also naive and honest-at-heart.
Flint has the proportions of an adult and a more prominent nose, but everything else about him says baby: reminding us there's innocence and good intent behind his irresponsible and dangerous experiments.
Po=chubby baby. Except the larger brow and broad nose with the arced muzzle, give him the potential for some really aggressive moments. 
Even the middle-aged appearance of Mr. Incredible is softened by some baby face: large eyes, long forehead, soft chin, compressed nose-eye triangle. He was more visually defined and sure of himself earlier in the movie, but at this point is exploring his identity and place in the world. 
Even the ridiculously baby-faced Elsa is using certain elements to add maturity and a bit of gravity: stronger brow, longer nose, defined chin, half-squinted eyes.
Could you tell all these stories with characters who have mature-face bias instead? Maybe, in fact it might even be interesting. But doing so would require extra exposition to establish the character's personality, and convince the audience (most of which are very young) to go emotionally with the character on that journey. When you've got an animated film's running time and budget, it makes sense to just design a character that says all the same things and make that screen time unnecessary.

I'm not expecting this post will settle any debates, but hopefully will give some insight into some of the thinking behind baby-face in protagonist design. I'd love to hear what you think too!


  1. This is such a great post. I wish you would talk about stuff like thus even more because I'm always curious about it!

    1. Yes! This is fascinating. (and *this* is Meg)

    2. I will try. They do take a bit of time to write up though!

  2. Some of that I'd already identified, but you codified it so that I could define my thoughts. The fact that the BF-composition of the face identifies the character headed for an archetypal journey is a new discovery for me. I love the way you juxtapose the graphic symbols and the written ones. Good post. Food for thought. Maybe even brilliant, but since nobody's made me a ball yet, I'm not going there.

    1. I can't give it to you until Christmas! I don't mind waiting for accolades until then though. :)

  3. I've been meaning to ask you since I heard you talk about the Von Restorff-Effect, because stuff from it kept coming up, but now I see you know about Universal Principles of Design. An awesome book.

    The only gripe with it I ever had was, that I just cannot remember them all.

    I am always thrilled when you do a post on how to apply one of those principles to character design or painting. No exception on this one. Which one will be next? The Wayfinding Principle for Audience/Character perception? I am curious to find out.

    1. Ooh, I love wayfinding. But that's more of a game design thing and might be hard to talk about without showing things in real-time navigation. I'm really not sure what I would do next. But yes, that is a great book and one of my first deep dives into the vast reaches of what thoughtful design can accomplish.

  4. Great read! Personally I can see a lot of differences between the faces of Rapunzel and Anna - but then I do a lot of character designing. The idea of their face foretelling their journey was fascinating, and something I'll be keeping in mind when I make characters in future!

    1. Yeah, Rapunzel and Anna are pretty different and seem close to me more because they fit within the Disney "house" style than anything else.

  5. Anonymous1:28 PM

    Thank you, Sam. You always bring amazing insight.

    I've dissected a lot of that stuff too, but it seems to me that the old Disney moves didn't do as much of this-- outside of Bambi--as they did beginning with Little Mermaid. They seem to have always made children and animals loveable and adorable, but not adults.

    Snow White has the cutesy features, but she doesn't have big eyes. The prince looks normal.

    Cinderella looks normal. Prince looks normal.
    Sleeping beauty looks normal. Prince looks normal.

    Humans in Lady and Tramp look normal, as does the wife in Dalmations if I recall correctly.

    It isn't until we get to Little Mermaid that the male and female characters have the Bambi eyes, and then every character seems to get them, which has just carried on to 3d movies, and everything else.

    Do you think the switch at Little Mermaid was in anyway influenced by anime starting to pick up around that time? Now big eyes are ubiquitous thanks to the mid 90's anime boom, that it seems like animated movies can't be made anymore without them.

    1. Cutesy feature are appealing to baby face bias. If you think Cinderella and Aurora are normal than you haven't really compared them carefully to a real person. I know they're a lot closer to a real person than Rapunzel and the Frozen girls, but they're still using pushes toward baby face bias to get that innocent, trustworthy feel.

      I don't think the humans in Lady and the Tramp or in 101 Dalmations are supposed to have much baby face bias, as they aren't the real protagonists. The dogs in both definitely do. I agree that there was a shift at Little Mermaid but Disney hasn't stuck to it like gospel (look at the humans in Hunchback!). It's not totally cut and dry, but I think your idea of them being influenced by Anime around that period is interesting.

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  7. Blogger defeats me, pardon. Really good writeup and insight into the thought process of this kind of thing. Admittedly even while I understand how it can come about, I feel like this kind of thing as an exclusive fashion might (does?) have unintended consequences. Oversaturating our natural aesthetics literally warps and changes them, and it's the most impressionable who are exposed to this the most. I wonder if the apparently increasing size/exaggeration of babyface features is a response to desensitisation of them in general or just within the media industry, where in order to make something have the same 'cute' impact you have to push harder and harder every time...I dunno. I feel like the concept, while useful (I definitely use it!) is limiting and doesn't reflect what we -could- be doing with character design if people were aware of less linear rules, or felt less pressured to conform to the current norm. I don't really have much more than vague unease to go on here admittedly, I'm hardly an authority in this field and I'm still figuring out my own biz.

    1. It's okay to have a vague unease about it, especially when you look at the specific ways it's being used in culture now. The good news is that there are so many variants possible when introducing elements of baby face bias that you don't have to worry about every character ending up looking the same. The forces that move culture toward sameness are a different thing entirely, not only are people individually uncomfortable with radically new things, but companies, governments, societies are slow to adopt anything more than a slight offset to the norm at a time. So big shifts in standards, like what is considered appealing as a character design, happen fairly slowly (actually more quickly sometimes though, in rapid bursts). I'll probably do another post on that later.

      All that said, baby-face bias is disturbing at the same time it's useful. I mean, they found in studying it that people perceived individuals who had certain face structures to be more likable and trustworthy than others. And this was true regardless of culture, age, gender, and other factors. I'm really uncomfortable with that. But I'm still willing to use the strange truth of it when I'm designing characters. :/

  8. Anonymous10:04 AM

    Actually, the merchandise excuse doesn't hold up- Disney actually panicked the first year Frozen was out, because they didn't realize so many people would want merchandise that they produced so little!

    Some interesting insights that I hadn't really considered so far- I like the analysis of the characters as someone searching and unsure of themselves. Interesting food for thought.

    Honestly I thought Frozen's designs were bad in a completely different way.

    The whole point of Frozen's Elsa character was that she was misunderstood as a villainous character when she was actually a good person. She was a sort of anti 'evil queen villain' since that movie liked to play with Disney cliches.

    But the art design fails the story, because Elsa looks just like a regular adorable doe eyed Disney princess. Compare Cruella or Ursula to Elsa. There's nothing in her design to suggest a villain, unlike Wreck It Ralph or Beast(from Beauty and the Beast) who had expressive but still villainous designs. So Elsa never looks like the threat she is perceived as. It really weakened the movie for me.

    1. While I wasn't on the team, I was at Disney while Frozen was being developed, and based on the conversations I had/overheard with the feature team, I don't think that team made anything with the excuse of merchandise. But believe me that it's a force there in every production---that's what sets Disney apart creatively from Dreamworks and others---so that even a moderately successful box office run can sustain other movies they attempt to make. It's not an overt force, but it's a factor in what movies get made, how they treat protagonists, and so forth. You're probably right about the panicking when they didn't make enough merchandise, but that is a different thing altogether. People were hoping for something as big as Rapunzel, but nobody had any idea it would become as big as it did.

      I agree with you about Elsa's design. I think she could have been more hardened by her experiences, visually, without losing the essential appeal of the character, and I think that would have strengthened the twists of the movie. A lot of the early production art DID have her looking more villainous. I can't speak to why they went the way they did.


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