Uncanny Valley

The Uncanny Valley occurs when a CGI character(mainly human characters), or a robot, looks too realistic it makes people feel uneasy and uncomfortable. It also happens when the character tries to mimic a human behaviour but fails, when its movement isn’t quite right, it looks rather mechanical than natural, when the character tries to make an eye contact but fails. The phenomenon known to us since the 70’s, when the term was first used by a Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori and ever since is a cause of a debate for scientist and artists.

Pixar avoided the uncanny valley effect by coming up with its own style of character design. It might not be a common knowledge but one of the reasons that pushed Pixar to achieve this was a the audience’s reaction to their short, “Tin Toy”(1988), featuring a very realistic looking baby character that freaked people out. Stylized characters let animators do so much more that realistic looking human characters.

A well-known example of the Uncanny Valle effects is the “Polar Express”(2004) and to a certain extent Beowulf(2007). What these two films have in common is a same director, Robert Zemeckis, and the fact that instead of using key frame animation, motion capture was used to capture actors facial expressions. What I’ve noticed is that even that the visuals in that film look pretty great the characters’ eyes look dead, they don’t have any emotions. Similar things could be said about characters in The Adventures of Tintin, in which also motion capture was used. I think that could be something that puts us off when it comes to realistically looking characters. It seems to me that the motion capture, which works fine when it comes to capturing body movement is still limited when it comes to facial expressions. That’s why Golum’s face, from Lord of The Rings was animated by actual animators and not by motion capture.

Here is an example that in my opinion works. The model is very realistic(when I first saw it I didn’t realise that it was CGI), however it doesn’t give any creepy vibes. The performance feels human, doesn’t look mechanical or unnatural. Of course after looking more into it we cane notice that her face looks too smooth, and there’s something different about her eyes, but I wouldn’t say they’re dead but I think it could be said that Image Metrics, company that’s behind this project successfully avoided the Uncanny Valley effect.

It seems to me that when it comes to animation eyes and eye brows are important in avoiding the uncanny valley. It’s something that motion capture can’t do, or can’t get it right at the moment and by focusing on that we can get much more natural looking expressions and much more interesting expressions. Some say that eyes are the window to the soul and we want our characters to look alive and believable.

HSU, J., 2012. Why “Uncanny Valley” Human Look-Alikes Put Us on Edge [online] Scientific American, Available at:  http://www.scientificamerican.com/article/why-uncanny-valley-human-look-alikes-put-us-on-edge/ [Accessed date: 06.01.2015]

Snyder D. D., 2011, ‘Tintin’ and the Curious Case of the Dead Eyes [Online] The Atlantic, available at:  http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2011/12/tintin-and-the-curious-case-of-the-dead-eyes/250432/ [Accessed date: 20.04.2015]

Rose S., 2011, Tintin and the Uncanny Valley: when CGI gets too real [Online] The Guardian, available at: http://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/oct/27/tintin-uncanny-valley-computer-graphics [Accessed date: 20.04.2015]


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