Emotional avatars
: choreographing emotional facial expression animation

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


As a universal element of human nature, the experience, expression, and perception of emotions permeate our daily lives. Many emotions are thought to be basic and common to all humanity, irrespective of social or cultural background. Of these emotions, the corresponding facial expressions of a select few are known to be truly universal, in that they can be identified by most observers without the need for training. Facial expressions of emotion are subsequently used as a method of communication, whether through close face-to-face contact, or the use of emoticons online and in mobile texting. Facial expressions are fundamental to acting for stage and screen, and to animation for film and computer games. Expressions of emotion have been the subject of intense experimentation in psychology and computer science research, both in terms of their naturalistic appearance and the virtual replication of facial movements. From this work much is known about expression universality, anatomy, psychology, and synthesis. Beyond the realm of scientific research, animation practitioners have scrutinised facial expressions and developed an artistic understanding of movement and performance. However, despite the ubiquitous quality of facial expressions in life and research, our understanding of how to produce synthetic, dynamic imitations of emotional expressions which are perceptually valid remains somewhat limited.
The research covered in this thesis sought to unite an artistic understanding of expression animation with scientific approaches to facial expression assessment. Acting as both an animation practitioner and as a scientific researcher, the author set out to investigate emotional facial expression dynamics, with the particular aim of identifying spatio-temporal configurations of animated expressions that not only satisfied artistic judgement, but which also stood up to empirical assessment. These configurations became known as emotional expression choreographies. The final work presented in this thesis covers the performative, practice-led research into emotional expression choreography, the results of empirical experimentation (where choreographed animations were assessed by observers), and the findings of qualitative studies (which painted a more detailed picture of the potential context of choreographed expressions). The holistic evaluation of expression animation from these three epistemological perspectives indicated that emotional expressions can indeed be choreographed in order to create refined performances which have empirically measurable effects on observers, and which may be contextualised by the phenomenological interpretations of both student animators and general audiences.
Date of AwardMay 2011
Original languageEnglish
SupervisorBrian Robinson (Supervisor)


  • Animation
  • Emotional expression
  • Facial expression
  • Avatars
  • Practice-research

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