How Disney Is Perfecting Animated Eyeballs

New software and image-capturing techniques are leading the studio further and further into realism.

Creating lifelike animated characters is hard. The bounce of the hair, the twitch of the cheek. Disney and its competitors have been continuously working to build more and more realistic animations. They were praised for how lifelike Merida’s hair was in Brave, and how believable Finding Nemo's reef was (aside from the talking fish). Next, they might be lauded for how personable Woody’s eyes are in Toy Story 4. No more ovals with dots in the middle in this studio.
A recently released paper and accompanying video from Disney Studios shows how they’ve been working at modeling eyes. “Even though the human eye is one of the central features of individual appearance, its shape has so far been mostly approximated in our community with gross simplifications,” the authors write.
Here’s the video:
The narrator points out that each eye is unique, and describes a photographic capture system that looked at nine different eyes and recreated each individual’s peepers. The result is realistic, with veins, lumpy sections on the cornea, and the pits and grooves that define a person’s colored iris. They even take into account how reflective each section of the eye is, so as it shifts the reflections within the eye change too. The capture method and reconstruction can even keep track of how the iris deforms as the pupil dilates.
Putting each of the nine eyes next to each other to watch them dilate shows just how different every eye is.
It’s a little creepy, but the ability to realistically reproduce eyes has obvious significance to Disney. Toward the end of the video, they create a digital doppelgänger for an actor, using their scanned and reproduced eyes to create a new character with realistic eyeballs.
It’s not just Disney who might want to make realistic faces, of course. Video games have been pushing into the realm of realism, with games like The Last of Us and Get Even. Most of the time that's done without image-capturing an actor's eyes, but rather using production techniques after the fact. In Sony's documentary on the making of The Last of Us, the game's animators talk about creating realistic eye motions by watching the human performances recorded for game production (warning: game spoilers in that video).
Disney doesn’t seem to care much here about the uncanny valley, the prospect that making a non-human representation of a person look too real might, in turn, make it revolting. But remember that the uncanny valley (if it exists at all) has edges on both sides. If Disney can cross it, and emerge on the other end with something that is so realistic that viewers can barely tell it’s not human, they don’t have to worry about the valley behind them.