Climbing up the Uncanny Valley

 

I’d just like to start by apologising for the lack of posts recently, since I had a weekend away, then fell sick, so I’ve not updated since then.But, anyway…

If you are a follower of mine, you may remember me mentioning how I’m a huge fan of animation in my post about the “It’s Just For Kids” excuse. And that is true. I love all forms of animation, from hand drawn, to digitally drawn, to CGI, and of course stop motion.

And then there’s the other form. You may be wondering what I’m talking about, since it likely sounds like I covered them all. But there is another form of animated feature that seemed to come and go awfully quickly. I am referring to all-mocap animation. As in cartoon features made entirely through the art of motion capture CGI.

Now you might be thinking “what are you talking about, mocap is doing great! How many big budget blockbusters use it nowadays?” While that may be true, I’m not referring to movies like Avatar that feature motion captured CGI in a live action setting. I’m talking about movies like The Polar Express or Beowulf: movies that use mocap, but aren’t attempting to appear as live action, but instead as very detailed cartoons.

Mocap Cartoons stated off reasonably well with the Polar Express, but have now become a non entity in the world of animation. Why is this? Well, for starters, you can ask Mars Needs Moms about that one.

Mars Needs Moms.png

Someone thought this idea was worth $150 million apparently

But there is another reason. And that reason is what I would like to discuss today. It’s something that can affect any form of animation, but especially motion capture. And that reason is the Uncanny Valley effect.

What is the uncanny valley? Well simply put, it’s an effect where, when attempting to make something seem more realistic, anthromorphic and human, there will always come a point where that thing looks too real and yet not real enough at the same time. It looks convincingly real, but not convincingly alive as such. And this makes it look unnerving.

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You’ll notice that corpses and zombies are slap bang in them middle of the valley. This is largely why the uncanny valley exists in the first place. Humans have evolved to be naturally disgusted by corpses. It’s a necessary revulsion, given it wards us away from the diseases that dead things tend to carry.

Unfortunately for animators, this means there is a bit of a problem when trying to create realistic animation. Designing a realistic looking human is one thing, but making it look alive is more challenging. When the human looks off, or dead eyed, it’s going to trigger our natural revulsion to dead bodies. People are not going to  want to watch a movie with a protagonist that looks like a corpse puppet.

In all forms of animation, the uncanny valley has had a tendency to crop up. 2D animation would sometimes have problems with rotoscoping (that being the act of tracing 2D animation over a live action person-the 2D equivalent to mocap if you will) due to over-detailed character models appearing in otherwise under-detailed two dimensional animation. CGI had a rough start towards the beginning, as exemplified by the baby that appeared in one of Pixar’s first shorts, Tin Toy.

tintoy-uncanny-baby

yikes

Nowadays, this is less of an issue for 2D and CGI, but is possibly the biggest issue for motion capture. This isn’t entirely surprising. Motion capture is  designed to look realistic. This works for films that are simply trying to create something that blends in with the live action. But all mocap movies aren’t attempting to be live action, but instead, are attempting their own realistic cartoonish imagery. In other words, just like the uncanny valley, they’re trying to be too realistic and not realistic enough at the same time. And this can  lead to disastrous consequences.

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Again, just ask Mars Needs Moms

So, what steps can animators take to avert the uncanny valley? Well, consider the following:

1. Stop trying to animate humans

The first CGI feature film was of course Toy Story, one of Pixar’s many greats, and the hit that began the CGI animation revolution. You will notice that Toy Story is, surprisingly enough, about toys. Not realistic people, but toys, made of plastic with unrealistic proportions. There was a reason for this. In fact there was a reason Pixar didn’t make movie centred on humans until The Incredibles in 2004, almost a decade after the release of Toy Story. Humans were difficult to animate in CGI. Back in the days of Toy Story, limitations to animation technology meant that human characters ended up looking as though they were made of plastic. Which, of course, Pixar took advantage of by making a movie about people who were in fact made of plastic.

Nowadays, “live action” motion capture is rarely used to create normal humans. Instead it creates aliens, apes, and even dragons. But, most importantly, it creates beings with proportions very different to your typical human. As such, they are less “familiar” to us, and less easy to fall into the valley as a result.

2. Try to find a unique style

Most motion capture films tend to simply go for the style of cartoon realism. While some, like The Adventures of Tin Tin, go for a more cartoonish approach, their “styles” still look off, and would likely only be improved by making it straightforward CGI instead.

Sometimes, you can get around the uncanny effect by stylising to the point where somehow it works. Take for example, the stop motion movie Frankenweenie

frankenweenie-site

While gigantic eyes with miniscule pupils and tiny noses could easily land a movie straight in the valley, Frankenweenie is able to get away with it thanks to having its own gothic, black and white Tim Burton style-a style that fits in with the fact that the movie is a shout out to classic horror movies. One can only wonder what kind of animation could be created if Tim Burton created an all mocap cartoon.

3. If all else fails, try to take advantage of the uncanny valley

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While the uncanny valley is often seen as a detrimental effect, you don’t always need to overcome it. Sometimes, it can be used to your advantage.

I recently started watching Attack on Titan, which quickly became my new favourite anime, and also provided me with quite possibly the best deliberate use of the uncanny valley I’ve ever seen. In that show, the titular titans are giant humanoid figures with supposedly no sentience, that feast on humans. We see this happen on screen numerous times, and every single time it’s absolutely terrifying. Not just because people are getting eaten alive, but because the titans constantly have dead eyed grins on their faces, showing no sentience or expression in spite of looking mostly human. Every time they’re on screen, I feel deeply unnerved.

See, the uncanny valley is something I feel can be taken advantage of in terms of horror. It’s why so many horror films have featured things like creepy dolls, mannequins, or everyone’s favourite, zombies.

In conclusion, as a fan of animation, I feel it is important to all budding animators to understand the uncanny valley, and just how much it can affect our enjoyment of an animated movie, since the last thing we want is another Mars Needs Moms style disaster. And yes, I hope that all motion capture movies do make a comeback. Over the years, we have seen all sorts of things that can be accomplished through CGI and stop motion. And I think it would be a shame if we never got to see the scale that all mocap movies could accomplish.

All they could accomplish if they would just stop making movies about humans goddamn it.

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