May 30, 2011
The uncanny abyss
Ever since Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori's research on the subject back in the late 1970s, digital animation has been slowly but surely approaching the abyss of the "uncanny valley."
When a robot becomes 99 percent lifelike--so close that it's almost real--we focus on the missing one percent. We notice the slightly slack skin, the absence of a truly human glitter in the eyes. The once-cute robot now looks like an animated corpse. Our warm feelings, which had been rising the more vivid the robot became, abruptly plunge downward. Mori called this plunge "the uncanny valley," the paradoxical point at which a simulation of life becomes so good it's bad.
Now it appears that a major motion picture has fallen in. Jonathan Kim writes that "Disney's CG/3D animated film Mars Needs Moms [is] destined to become one of the biggest flops of all time," and identifies the culprits as a mediocre script, dull characters, high ticket prices, and the "zombie effect" of the uncanny valley.
Ryan Nakashima adds a few illustrative anecdotes:
Doug McGoldrick, who took his two daughters to see the movie, said the faces of the main characters "were just wrong." Their foreheads were lifeless and plastic-looking, "like they used way too much botox or something."
Frankly, even the human beings in Toy Story creep me out a bit.
Anime avoids this problem by creating an unique aesthetic that makes no attempt to mimic actual human morphology. Another good example is How to Train Your Dragon (one of the best films of the decade), whose characters are all caricatures, but as Craig Ferguson quips, his digital double is a better actor than he is.
The "uncanny valley"