This is the second post in a series. The first, dealing with affecting the shape of your SL avatar, is found here. But the face is the mirror of the soul, and it’s where you should put the most work in; if you think of your own experience, when you zoom in on someone’s av, what you usually look at is the face, isn’t it? The face is the area where people focus their attention, and it pays off if you focus your attention at learning how to master the sliders. The most realistic avatars are the ones that get the most attention, in SL, and I have a few areas that I’ve learned over the years that people will benefit from looking at.
First, though, I want to share a tip that will possibly be of interest to all of you in this context, and I’ll share how I learned it. Years ago, I read an anecdote in something like TV Guide about how Vanna White got her job. (The perennially lovely Ms. White is shown above.) Apparently Merv Griffin was re-casting Wheel of Fortune after a couple of less-than-perfect experiences, and was offered a series of women from whom to select for the job of evening-gown-clad letter-turner. Merv’s finger stabbed down on Vanna’s picture. “Her.” Why? someone asked? “Because her head is too big for her body, and that makes people look at her on television.” Look at the picture carefully; you may agree.
Personally, I think that a large percentage of the avs I see in Second Life have heads that are too small — and especially too small for the bodies they’ve selected. In part 1 of this essay, I suggested that if you were going to have, say, an ectomorphic body, you should have the matching head shape (see that part for more details). So if you’re designing a long slender body, have a long head. If you’re designing an average body, have a round or triangular head. And if you’re designing a muscular body, have a square head. Now, I venture to say that gay men who are designing avs in Second Life have one of two things in mind — they either want to be an ectomorph, for which read slender twink, or an endomorph, for which read Tom of Finland drawing. Those are polar opposites, to be sure, but they share one characteristic; they are extreme. And if you’re doing an extreme body, you need to have an extreme head to go with it. Whatever shape that head happens to need to be, whether long, round, or square, is just fine. What it should also be, though, is with “Head Size” set at about the 90 point. Yes, you run a little bit of risk of looking like an animated bobblehead, especially if you happen to have a slender neck. But given what I’ll call the “Vanna rule”, your head should be too big for your body because people are essentially looking at you “on television”. And believe me, Merv knew what he was talking about.
This will have the not entirely unexpected side effect of making most of your hair too small, so you will have to hope that you purchased wisely and haven’t impulsively deleted the sizing menu. In fact I have my head size at 90-ish, and routinely add 15% to the size of any new hair before I even bother fitting it. Because, yes, you will have to fit it, and adjust it to the massive dome that is your new large head. But the extra work will be worthwhile because it will make people look at you a lot more.
And at this point, I’d like to pause to thank my fellow blogger — hell, blogging role model, the man posts good stuff so regularly it’s embarrassing to the rest of us, and has done so for years — Eddi Haskell. Twice. I can’t find a reference to which to link, but my belief is that he has endorsed the idea of a larger head size himself; he may have put his point of view differently, though, so let’s just say the two of us are talking about the same kind of thing. Make your heads bigger, guys. (The second most common fault I see is arms that are too short.) The other reason I have to thank Eddi is that today he posted a lot of nice pictures of a real-life hot guy, British rugger bugger (I wish) and fitness model Stuart Reordan.
Now, let’s just take a moment to thank a munificent providence that there is such a human being in this world that has a face like that, am I right? The man is one in a billion. That’s just an extraordinary combination of genetics and environment that produced that particular heap of bones and muscles, and I for one am grateful for it.
So let’s start from the mutual assumption that Stuart Reordan has a strikingly handsome face, bone structure, eye colour, hair, skin tone, beard, yada yada yada. As it happens, strikingly handsome faces are what Second Life is specialized to turn out in large numbers and real life not so much. If you want to build a SL av that looks kind of like Stuart Reordan, it’s relatively easy because the sliders are there to do things like precisely hollow out cheeks or square off a jaw. In fact, there are potentially three or four components in Second Life to reproducing what we see here; skin is primary, but things like added facial hair and ears would also go a long way to verisimilitude. Underneath it all, though, you need a shape, and that’s what you need to learn how to affect. I hasten to add that there are many SL designers who will sell you a decent shape, and one or two who will actually sell you a superb one. So if you’re looking for the easy way to accomplish the ideal of a strikingly handsome avatar, you can do it by merely purchasing it, either as a pre-set group of sliders or a mesh body like my l’Uomo one. If you want to learn how to do it yourself, read on.
So put your av on a pose stand and zoom in, and crank up the sliders to change your face structure. You should have in front of you a couple of photographs of, say, Stuart Reordan that will be sufficient to try to copy his bone structure, much like I advised you to have photos of a body structure to copy. The easiest way to seem real is to copy real. Now, I trust you will recognize that Stuart Reordan has a head that is slightly larger than average; the Vanna theory bearing itself out. Now separate out the parts that will be affected by the shape sliders. So ignore the eye colour, the eyebrows, the stubble, the skin tone — and focus on the bone structure. One way to look at it is to mathematically divide the face into six equal zones, then notice how one part is larger than another. In Stuart, his forehead is a little oversized. He compensates for this visually by having a very wide jaw and a strong chin; the wide jaw makes the face look more rectangular and the head size actually begins to slope outwards just above the ears (honestly, the man won the genetic lottery in every way). His eyes are quite far apart. His cheekbones are so high that in a straight-on shot like this, they actually deform his sideburns in a very SL way; a little zig just above the earlobe. His nose is straight and relatively unnoticeable, and his lips are thin. And — an important point — his ears are about 25% too big for his head.
So the first general principle I have to offer here is, “In SL, perfection is easy, and it’s imperfection that gets noticed.” The second and linked principle is that “Everybody, no matter how beautiful, has something wrong with their face. Sometimes that imperfection is what makes the face memorable.”
There are lots of shapes available that will give you a face that the designers might call “classically handsome” and I would call “another SL Ken doll”. In fact, I’ll give you a way to get a “classically handsome” face — go into your face shape menus and very carefully set every value to 50. It’s a basic handsome face that won’t offend anyone and won’t really interest anyone either. There is something you can do, though, that goes back to advice I’ve mentioned before; if you’re trying to create a look, think of a way to describe it in a phrase, and you’ll be closer to achieving it. The 50-slider face only says “corporate drone”. You can make a truly original face by coming to a careful balance of the sliders; deform one part, like the forehead size, and then see if you can balance it out by adjusting the rest of the face. Alternatively, you can work by trying to match a photograph of someone like Stuart Reordan. You won’t get an exact match — skin has a lot to add to this, as would a carefully chosen set of facial hair. But you can match the height of the cheekbones and the width of the jaw and their relationship.
And then the key point that I’ve learned over the years is — just like Stuart Reordan has slightly large ears, you need to introduce a single flaw into your av’s facial structure. Ears are a really good way of doing that; large, small, jutting, flat. Eyes that are too close together make you look slightly hard and untrustworthy; too far apart make you look mental! Making the character’s lips a little too large suggests mixed Negroid ancestry, tilting the eyes adds a hint of Asian ancestry. One subtle one that’s available is skewing the nose to the right or left, but I’m not clear whether this actually is interesting or merely a bit creepy. You can make the jaw a bit too wide, the neck a bit too thick, even these days the hairline a bit too receding. The point is that you need to have one thing that makes the viewer look at your face until they are much more likely to accept the kind of person that you’re telling them you are. Subconsciously, people think something like “Oh, he’d be really handsome if only it wasn’t for the scar in his eyebrow.” whereas it’s the scar in the eyebrow that makes you look 100% more real to their subconscious eye.
It’s also very useful to get photographs of the same person from a number of different angles. Notice how this photograph is canted a bit so that it shows how the ear inserts into the back of the jaw, and the general neck size, and roughly how bulbous the nose is? You should be looking at your av from a 360-degree perspective, to be sure, but it doesn’t hurt to have a couple of different takes on the relative sizes of each facial part.
So first make a perfect face, and then pick a trait by which people will remember your face. “The guy with the scar in his eyebrow,” “The guy with the cleft chin,” etc. Use the same method I told you about in part I, whereby you consecutively name each successive “save” by VER 01, VER 02, etc. Save before you start, have some fun with it, but if you spend the time to figure out the relationship between the sliders and what you see on the screen, and then introduce a single memorable fault, you will be halfway to being truly memorable.