uncanny valley

Dead eyes characters

In my previous entry I’ve mentioned the role of eyes and dead eyed characters in films like “Polar Express”(2004) and how important the role of eyes is in expressing character’s emotions and making the character more likeable and believable. Having character’s with convincing eyes is important to the overall appeal of the character. For example let’s look at this video, it’s from the comedy show but it does rise an important issue. Conan is a what we could say is an example of a common viewer, a potential target audience. He’s not an expert in animation, computer graphics, games but straight away he can tell that there’s something not right with the character’s eyes.

In an article for The New Yorker, Derek Bradley, from Disney Research has said that “A lot of the dead-eye look can come from the animated motion of the eye rather than the static shape,”(2015) and then “If the dynamics of the eyes are not a hundred per cent correct, then it’s something people pick up on.”(ibid) Therefore I’ve decided to look at some examples of dead eye in animation and compare it to what I consider good examples of eye movement.


In this clip we can see a fair share of face close up so it gives us a chance of examining the facial expressions of the characters. From beginning it is quite hard to ignore the photorealistic design of the characters and it was already slightly off-putting. I have to say that it is hard to pick some eye movements that are out of place, it all looks well done, which is not surprising, as it was a big production. For me the fact that the eyes are design so lifelike, yet they clearly don’t look alive is already ruining the whole animation. Boy’s eyes seems to be very shiny but they are soulless.  His face is also very smooth which makes it look plastic.

“Beowulf”(2007) is another example of motion capture animation and photorealistic characters. It also has the dead eye look. Characters still seem to be soulless. Let take a look at two images from the that scene. The first one is supposed to illustrate anger, while the 2nd one is showing confusion. I feel like they don’t achieve their goals, especially the second one. It’s probably more noticeable in the video clips than in stills. Again, characters look plastic.



Queen Wealtheow from Beowulf reminded me of Queen Lillian from Shrek 2 as they seem to be somehow similar from the design point of view. In comparison to the other characters from the movie, and from Shrek’s universe she’s very close to being photorealistic. Usually characters look more cartoony or some of their features are exaggerated but she seems fairly normal, but we could clearly see that her character isn’t eerie and isn’t in falling into the Uncanny Valley.  What I’ve noticed is that her face and her eyes seem to be much more alive and natural that faces of characters in “Beowulf” or “Polar Express”.  Her expressions are always changing and don’t looks static. There’s also a lot of asymmetry in her expressions.

I’m using an example of “The Incredibles”(2004) because it was released in the same year as “Polar Express” but it was a much bigger success and it was a critically acclaimed movie. Also it focused on human characters, in contrary to other Pixar films that were focusing on toys, bugs, cars or fish. What we can notice straight away is the fact that even that characters look very smooth and maybe plastic it is not off-putting like in the previous examples. Stylized design of the characters is  definitely changing our perception of them. Again their far from the uncanny valley even that they are clearly human. When it comes to the expression again their very natural, sometimes exaggerated and asymmetrical. Thanks to this characters look interesting, alive, audience can emphasise with them and while before I said that they were soulless that it’s not the case here.

What I’ve learnt from this little analysis is the fact that there’s probably a long way until motion capture could marginalise character animators. In an effort to avoid dead eyes in characters I have to remember about the design of said character, it cannot be too realistic and when it comes to animating it, to give it some life I have to remember about eyebrows, eye darts, exaggerated movements and asymmetry.

King D., 2015, Building A Better Digital Eye [Online] The New Yorker, available at: http://www.newyorker.com/tech/elements/cgi-digital-animation-eye [Accessed at: 21.04.2015]

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]