I have been researching the relationship between emotion and facial expression, both to prepare for later facial animation, and to try to better understand how expressions affect a viewer for my project. Paul Ekman is a primary name in this area, having researched emotions and facial expression since the 1960s.

His research proved that facial expressions and their associated emotions are universal, in contrast to the previous idea proposed by researchers like Ray Birdwhistell that facial expressions were socially conditioned, and had to be learned like a language. In his book Emotions Revealed, he details two findings in particular made this clear – studies of people who were blind from birth showed they used the same facial expressions despite having never seen other people using them:

“If expressions do not need to be learned, then those who are born congenitally blind should manifest similar expressions to those of sighted individuals. A number of studies have been done over the past sixty years, and repeatedly that is what has been found, especially for spontaneous facial expressions.” (Ekman, 2003)

Additionally, studies of different cultures, e.g. America and Japan, showed that the same expressions occurred with the same emotions in different parts of the world (cultural differences in intentional inhibition of expression notwithstanding). This was then supported even further by studies of isolated cultures who had never been exposed to other cultural influences at all – again, emotions and their corresponding facial expressions matched those of the previous studies:

“If facial expressions are completely learned, then these isolated people should have shown novel expressions, ones we had never seen before. There were none. It was still possible that these familiar expressions might be signals of very different emotions. But while the films didn’t always reveal what happened before or after an expression, when they did, they confirmed our interpretations. If expressions signal different emotions in each culture, then total outsiders, with no familiarity with the culture, should not have been able to interpret the expressions correctly.” (Ekman, 2003)

For my project I need to understand what effect the expressions of a character have on an audience and why, in order to tailor the performances of the characters I’m modelling. The purpose of facial expressions is performative, in that they exist to convey information to another person. While expressions can actually affect how the person making them feels (Ekman notes how intentionally adopting a certain expression can create sensations of the associated emotion) they exist primarily to let another human being know one’s mood or response to a particular situation.

Ekman also outlines the qualities of an emotion, which are of interest to me in terms of effective character animation and audience empathy (emphasis mine):

• There is a feeling, a set of sensations that we experience and often are aware of.
• An emotional episode can be brief, sometimes lasting only a few seconds, sometimes much longer. If it lasts for hours, then it is a mood and not an emotion.
It is about something that matters to the person.
• We experience emotions as happening to us, not chosen by us.
• The appraisal process, in which we are constantly scanning our environment for those things that matter to us, is usually automatic. We are not conscious of our appraising, except when it is extended over time.
• There is a refractory period that initially filters information and knowledge stored in memory, giving us access only to what supports the emotion we are feeling. The refractory period may last only a few seconds, or it may endure for much longer.
We become aware of being emotional once the emotion has begun, when the initial appraisal is complete. Once we become conscious that we are in the grip of an emotion, we can reappraise the
• There are universal emotional themes that reflect our evolutionary history, in addition to many culturally learned variations that reflect our individual experience. In other words, we become emotional about matters that were relevant to our ancestors as well as ones we have found to matter in our own lives.
The desire to experience or not experience an emotion motivates much of our behavior.
An efficient signal—clear, rapid, and universal—informs others of how the emotional person is feeling.
(Ekman, 2003)


Ekman, P. (2003). Emotions revealed. 1st ed. New York: Times Books.