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.

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The "uncanny valley"

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# posted by Anonymous Wm
5/30/2011 12:54 PM   
You would think the studios would have learned the lesson of The Polar Express.
# posted by Blogger Joe
5/30/2011 1:11 PM   
Alyssa was watching Avatar the other day. Beyond the abysmal horridness of the script, I thought the Na'vi were terribly animated. I simply couldn't shake the feeling that I was watching a cartoon and never bought into them being real for a millisecond. I left.
# posted by Blogger kuri
5/30/2011 1:50 PM   
Mitt Romney has that effect on me.
# posted by Blogger Eugene
5/31/2011 10:39 AM   
On the plus side, Mitt Romney can be reprogrammed! He installs a new OS every election season.
# posted by Blogger Henry
5/31/2011 10:59 AM   
Spielberg's "motion capture" Tin Tin is another example. It's horribly disappointing to be watching the trailer and thinking it's live action then getting to the closeup of Tin Tin at 1:04 and realizing it's a zombie film.

The sad thing is that Tin Tin is -- should be -- pure Indiana Jones. It's all old-fashioned detective hide and seek, foot chases, car chases, fist fights, tommy guns, and archaic futurism.
# posted by Blogger Joe
6/01/2011 11:23 AM   
The Tin Tin trailer is weird. Part of it does look like life action, but there are plenty of clues that it's not--subtle life movements are missed. (Despite all the advances in animation, walking, talking and a person or animal lying down aren't quite right.)
# posted by Blogger Kate Woodbury
6/01/2011 7:44 PM   
I always understood animation was actually more expensive than live action. Has this changed? Or is this "we've got to get animation as real as possible!" obsession just a weird quirk being carried out by a certain sector of Hollywood?
# posted by Blogger Eugene
6/02/2011 3:13 PM   
Considering the quality of the digital animation in the Star Wars parodies on The Family Guy (that often improve on the originals), we're clearly at a point where, beyond a few million an hour in production costs, budgets will simply grow to absorb all of the available financing (without necessarily adding anything to the "art").

So we're talking $2 million for an episode of The Simpsons, $20 million for a Studio Ghibli feature film, and $200 million for a Disney/Pixar extravaganza. A well-funded anime series will maybe get $200,000. The differences are most apparent in the inbetweening and rendering. So it's up to the writers to carry the day (or not).