Nonverbal Communication and Disney Animation at #NCA12

To kick off the panel, Darlene Hadrika presented a beautiful animated short film created by students at the University of Central Florida that showcases nonverbal communication in eye contact, body posture, and music.

Lon Smart, a head character artist at Walt Disney Parks, showcased some of his work (which includes the Lion King’s hyenas and Mulan’s MuShu.

Smart explained a few features of facial animation. first, he explained that Disney characters have such large eyes to exaggerate the expressions and uses the body movement to over emphasize action. Anime and Japanese animations teach us that size and shape of eyes indicates heroes and villains.


During Smart’s time working on the hyenas on Lion King he encountered a particular challenge: how to portray a villain who is mean yet funny. Moving the hyenas from happy to shocked takes a series of designs that exaggerates the head from (1) smiling to (2) small to (3) large, stetched, and overly shocked to (4) settling into the expression.

And the expression can give a lot of information. According to Smart, in many Disney animations, if the character is thinking about something new or deciding what to do (or lying), the character looks up and to his left, if he’s remembering, he looks up and to his right.

In a nonverbal animation, animators must be able to tell a story in a quick sketch. Portray a story in 3-4 lines. “Think with a pencil,” by communicating expression and story first, then embellish and appreciate.

For example, over a lunch break, Smart created a MuShu scene that is totally nonverbal. An explosion happens and MuShu casts false blame by pointing to the cricket. No dialogue. When Smart saw this in the theater, everyone laughed at this nonverbal humor. Someone in the theater exclaimed, “That Eddie Murphy is so funny,” attributing the humor to the voice actor rather than the animator. Smart just laughed and shrugged.

Kim Johnson, a costume production designer, discussed transitioning the characters from film to the stage in the Lion King – animals as a “people performed live expression.” She used the gazelles to demonstrate how to blend costumes with color and pattern into the puppets.

Timon is an example of difference. The character in a park can’t change facial expressions, so the body posture and gesture have to change dramatically to welcome kids. In the Broadway show, the puppet and the actor merge. The puppet doesn’t change expression, but the actor does.

Rafiki transforms into a person in makeup. Rafiki brings Africa with sound. The music drives the experience of Africa, not through a mimicked costume, but through the same feeling.

The actors portraying Scar, must instead lose the person in the character. The costume helps, but the nonverbal body positioning really sells Scar’s disdain.

Smart and johnson point out that when characters of any sort leave the movie and enter the parks, they lose the ability to change facial expression, but *teaser* that will soon be changing. Technology will be invading the characters in the park to allow them to change facial expressions.

Finally, Louise Mares of the University of Wisconsin shared her research. She observed that children receive lots of a movie’s ideas through nonverbal communication, but they often missed the verbal message of the plot. She compared first time viewers of Sword and the Stone with those who had seen it before.

Asking the question, what happens when a character undergoes a physical transformation, Mares found differences in cognitive understanding. The older kids called “conservers” understand the character transition without issue, but younger non-conservers did better only with repeated exposure.

She asked children to retell the story, then asked them about the prevailing feelings. Her learning indicates that kids do not understand sarcasm. They have poor understanding of moral lessons, negative emotion was hard to eradicate with happy endings, and ironic cues are often misunderstood. But they appreciate the beauty and action of the scenes while learning about narrative structure.


  1. I enjoy what you guys are usually up too. This kind of clever
    work and reporting! Keep up the good works guys I’ve
    incorporated you guys to my blogroll.

What are your thoughts?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s