The Bla Face

My latest experiments involved animated SVG’s and webapps for mobile devices (FirefoxOS…). Also scratches HTML5 audio tag.

The result is this irritating application: The Bla Face. A talking head that stares around, blinks and speaks the ‘bla’ language.

Take a look at it and read more if you are interested on how it was done.

Animating Inkscape illustrations

I drew the SVG face as an example for a Inkscape course I was teaching as volunteer in a women association at my town. This was to show the students, that, once you have a vectorial drawing, it is quite easy to animate it like a puppet. I just moved the parts directly in Inkscape, for example, moving the nodes of the mouth, or moving the pupils.

Playing with that is quite funny, but the truth is that, although the SVG standard provides means to automate animations, and Internet is full of examples and documentation on how to do it, it must be done either by changing the XML (SMIL, CSS) or by programming with JavaScript, there is no SVG native FLOSS authoring tool available that I know. In fact, the state of the art would be something like that:

  • Synfig: Full interface to animate, imports and exports svg’s but animation is not native SVG and you pay the price.
  • Tupi: Promising interface concept, working with svg but not at internal level. It still needs work.
  • Sozi and JessyInk: Although they just animate the viewport, not the figures, and their authoring UI is quite pedestrian, I do like how they integrate the animation into the SVG output.
  • A blue print exists on how to make animations inside Inkscape. Some years ago and still there.

So if I want to animate the face I should code some SMIL/Javascript. Not something that I could teach my current students, but, at least, let’s use it as a mean to learn webapp development. Hands on.

Embedding svg into HTML5, different ways unified.

The web is full of reference on the different ways to insert an SVG inside HTML5. Just to learn how it works I tried most of them, I discarded the img method that blocks you the access to the DOM, and the embed method which is deprecated.

Inline SVG

The first method consists on inserting the SVG inline into the HTML5, it has the drawback that every time you edit the SVG from Inkscape you have to update the changes. No problem, there are many techniques to insert it dynamically. I used an idiom, that I already used for TestFarm for plots, and I like a lot. That is, a class of div emulating an img with a src attribute.

<!-- Method one: Inline SVG (dinamically inserted) -->

Calling the following function (requires JQuery), takes all such div tags and uses the src attributes to dynamically load the svg.

/// For every .loadsvg, loads SVG file specified by the 'src' attribute
function loadsvgs()
    $.each($(".loadsvg"), function() {
        xhr = new XMLHttpRequest();"GET",$(this).attr('src'),false);
        // Following line is just to be on the safe side;
        // not needed if your server delivers SVG with correct MIME type

The document to create new elements in this case is the HTML root, so document and you can get the root SVG node by looking up “#faceit > svg”.


The second method is the object tag.


It is cleaner, since it does not need any additional JavaScript to load. When using object, the root SVG element is not even inside the HTML DOM. You have to lookup for the #faceit element and accessing the contentDocument attribute which is a DOM document itself. Because they are different DOM documents, new SVG elements can not be created, as we did previously, from the HTML document.

This couple of functions will abstract this complexity from the rest of the code:

function svgRoot()
    var container = $(document).find("#faceit")[0];
    // For object and embed
    if (container.contentDocument)
        return container.contentDocument;
    return $(container).children();
function svgNew(elementType)
    svg = svgRoot();
    try { 
        return svg.createElementNS(svgns, elementType);
    catch(e) {
        // When svg is inline, no svg document, use the html document
        return document.createElementNS(svgns, elementType);


I don’t like that much the iframe solution, because instead of adapting automatically to the size of the image, you have to set it by hand, clipping the image if you set it wrong. But it works in older browsers and it is not deprecated like embed:

    style='border: none; text-align:center;'

You can also play with the SVG view port to get the SVG resized, without losing proportions.

In terms of JavaScript, the same code that works for object works for iframe.


The CSS part of the head so that whatever the method they look the same.

Animating the eye pupils

Before doing any animation, my advice: change the automatic ids of the SVG objects to be animated into something nice. You can use object properties dialog or the XML view in Inkscape.

Eye pupils can be moved to stare around randomly. Both pupils have been grouped so that moving such group, #eyepupils, is enough. The JavaScript code that moves it follows:

var previousGlance = '0,0'
function glance()
    var svg = svgRoot();
    var eyes = $(svg).find("#eyepupils");
    var eyesanimation = $(eyes).find("#eyesanimation")[0];

    if (eyesanimation === undefined)
        eyesanimation = svgNew("animateMotion");
            'id': 'eyesanimation',
            'begin': 'indefinite', // Required to trigger it at will
            'dur': '0.3s',
            'fill': 'freeze',
    var x = Math.random()*15-7;
    var y = Math.random()*10-5;
    var currentGlance = [x,y].join(',');
    $(eyesanimation).attr('path', "M "+previousGlance+" L "+currentGlance);
    previousGlance = currentGlance;

    nextGlance = Math.random()*1000+4000;
    window.setTimeout(glance, nextGlance);

So the strategy is introducing an animateMotion element into the group, or reusing the previous one, set the motion, trigger the annimation and reprogram the next glance.

Animating mouth and eyelids

To animate eyelids and mouth, instead of moving an object we have to move control nodes of a path. Control nodes are not first class citizens in SVG, they are encoded using a compact format as the string value of the d attribute of the path. I added the following function to convert structured JS data into such string:

function encodePath(path)
    return {
        if ($.isArray(e)) return e.join(",");
        return e;
        }).join(" ");

With this helper, simpler functions to get parametrized variations on a given object become more handy. For instance, to have a mouth path with parametrized opening factor:

function mouthPath(openness)
    return encodePath([
        [173.28125, 249.5],
        [71.5625, 250.8125],
        [81.799543, 251.14273],
        [103.83158, 253.0+openness], // Incoming tangent
        [121.25, 253.0+openness], // Mid lower point
        [138.66843, 253.0+openness], // Outgoing tangent
        [160.7326, 251.48139],
        [173.28125, 249.5],

And to apply it:

$(svgRoot()).find("#mouth").attr("d", mouthPath(20));

But if we want a soft animation we should insert an attribute animation. For example if we want to softly open and close the mouth like saying ‘bla’ the function wouldbe quite similar to the one for the eye pupils, but now we use an animate instead animateMotion and specify the attributeName instead mpath, and instead of providing the movement path, we provide a sequence of paths to morph along them separated by semicolons.

function bla()
    var svg = svgRoot();
    var mouth = $(svg).find("#mouth");
    var blaanimation = $(mouth).find("#blaanimation")[0];
    if (blaanimation === undefined)
        blaanimation = svgNew("animate");
            'attributeName': 'd',
            'id': 'blaanimation',
            'begin': 'indefinite',
            'dur': 0.3,
    syllable = [
        .attr('values', syllable)
    sayBla(); // Triggers the audio
    nextBla = Math.random()*2000+600;
    window.setTimeout(bla, nextBla);

The actual code is quite more complicated because it makes words of many syllables (bla’s) and tries to synchronize the lipsing with audio. First of all, using the repeatCount attribute to be a random number between 1 and 4.

    var syllables = Math.floor(Math.random()*4)+1;
        .attr('values', syllable)
        .attr('repeatCount', syllables)

And then spacing them proportional to the word length:

    var wordseconds = (syllables+1)*0.3;
    var nextBla = Math.random()*2000+wordseconds*1000;
    window.setTimeout(bla, nextBla);

Regarding the lipsing, *sayBla is defined like:

function sayBla()
    blaaudio = $("#blaaudio")[0];

So the smart move is adding a handler to the repeat event of the animation. But this seems not to work on Chrome. Instead we draw on a timer again.

    for (var i=1; i<syllables; i++)
    window.setTimeout(sayBla, i*0.3*1000);

When animating the eyelids, more browser issues pop up. The eyelid on one eye is an inverted and displaced clone of the other. Firefox won’t apply to clones javascript triggered animations. If you set the values without animation, they work, if they are triggered by the begin attribute, they work, but if you trigger an animation with beginElement, it won’t work.

User interface and FirefoxOS integration

Flashy buttons and checkboxes, panel dialogs that get hidden, the debug log side panel… All that is CSSery i tried to make simple enough so that it can be pulled out. So just take a look at the CSS.

As I said, besides SVG animation I wanted to learn webapp development for FirefoxOS. My first glance at the environment as developer has been a mix of good and bad impressions. On one side, using Linux + Gecko as the engine for the whole system is quite smart. The simulator is clearly an alpha that eats many computer resources. Anyway let’s see how it evolves.

This project I tried to minimized the use of libraries, just using [requirejs] (a library dependency solver) and [Zepto] (a reduced JQuery) because the minimal Firefox example already provides them. But there are a wide ecology of them everybody uses Next thing to investigate is how to work with VoloJs on how to deploy projects, and that wide ecology of libraries available.

You have many foundation JQuery like frameworks such as Prototype, Underscore, Backbone… Then you have libraries for user interface components such as: Dojo, JQuery Mobile, React, YUI, Hammer, w2ui, m-project… Too many to know which is the one to use.



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