What Her Expression’s Expressing

If you judged by social media, you might think women’s facial expressions are all fish lips and come-hithery coyness. Anyone who knows anything at all, though, will tell you to quit judging by social media. Here’s your best starting point: women are loaded with them. With expressions that have nothing to do with trying to seduce anyone. I know. I know. Hard to believe.


don’t even try to guess what she’s thinking

Last year, Lino diSalvo, head of animation on Frozen, stirred up some commotion when he said … oh wait. I’ll just copy and paste:

“Historically speaking, animating female characters are really, really difficult, because they have to go through these range of emotions, but you have to keep them pretty and they’re very sensitive to — you can get them off a model very quickly. So, having a film with two hero female characters was really tough, and having them both in the scene and look very different if they’re echoing the same expression; that Elsa looking angry looks different from Anna being angry.”

The brouhaha’s (ooh, I think that’s a first time use of that word) over. Lots of people defended him with … ‘what he meant was’ and some people defended him with ‘hey, that’s Disney’s deal, not his’ and Amid Amidi, of Cartoon Brew, wrote this:

In fairness to DiSalvo, I get what he’s saying as an animator. Female characters in animation typically have a more limited range of facial expressions than their male counterparts, and they are caricatured only in villainous (think Cruella de Vil or Medusa in 
The Rescuers) or comedic contexts. Even Golden Age Disney animators complained about being assigned princesses and other female leads because they were expected to keep these characters within a predictable range of acting. Put two on the screen at the same time, and it becomes an instant challenge. 

Whatever. Maybe there’s not a lot of room for subtlety in animation – but there IS room. What’s more important to me is what those expressions are used for.

There might be a science (okay, art) of reading expressions, the tiny ticks that reveal all our secrets like, liar, liar, pants on fire, but even if you read the emotions right, it’s no way of gauging what anyone’s thinking. And that’s where the treasure is.


2 thoughts on “What Her Expression’s Expressing

  1. i agree, some people can be too critical with expressions, a little pout can mean a lot of things. Especially in animation, animators need sometimes to make an exaggerated faces to fully expressed the tone without making the character say a word.

    • Yes. And capturing that ‘tone’ you mention in a still picture is just as hard, don’t you think? But … isn’t that the point? (That’s a rhetorical question. :))

      Andreas Dejas, one of the big shot Disney animators, told us a story of trying his own interpretation of a woman’s reaction (ooh, I forget which character. Someone from The Princess and the Frog, I think). He was told to get back on model. So, I’m not convinced that they can’t do it. Or that it’s all that hard. Just that no one wants to. (

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