About a year ago, Walt Disney Studios chairman Rich Ross did something noble, true and just — not something that Hollywood executives do very often. He closed a production company called ImageMovers Digital, which, under the sinister vision of Robert Zemeckis, had specialized in using motion-capture technology to create family-friendly animated fare foist freakish, zombie-infested abominations like The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol on moviegoers. According to the New York Times, Ross pulled the trigger after seeing early footage from an Imagemovers film that his predecessor had greenlit called Mars Needs Moms. The studio was in too deep at that point to scrap the film, but Ross knew that enough was enough: Disney wouldn’t be in the corpse-animating business anymore. Not under his watch.
Turns out it wasn’t a moment too soon: Mars Needs Moms bellyflopped in truly epic fashion upon its release earlier this month, destroying hundreds of millions of Disney dollars in the process. “Was it the idea” The execution? The timing? There are a lot of excuses being floated,? an executive told the Times. Here’s a hunch: maybe it was that whole “THE CHARACTERS LOOK LIKE THE %*#@ING UNDEAD” thing. Or, to use the technical term, “the uncanny valley.”
Originally created to surmise why certain kinds of humanoid robots freak people out, the concept of the uncanny valley has acquired new relevance in the business of character design for films and video games, where techno-driven “realism” has become an obsession. The basic idea is simple: for many reasons (possibly including, but not limited to, our hardwired revulsion toward dead bodies and other disease vectors), anything that simulates the look and feel of a real human in a close-but-no-cigar manner will tend to have a major ick factor; whereas something that acts human but doesn’t come anywhere close to looking human doesn’t bother us at all. It’s the difference between C-3PO (charming!) and the android in this video below (kill it with fire!):
The closer you get to “more human than human” without actually getting there, the deeper into the “valley” your character design falls. And what’s true for robots holds true for animated characters, too. Sure, the script of “The Incredibles” was probably much better than “Mars Needs Moms”; but on a basic gut level, which kind of simulated human would you rather stare at for two hours?
The dead-eyed awfulness of these “uncanny” characters really only comes through when they’re in motion, of course. Angela Tinwell, who studies the uncanny valley’s impact on empathy and usability in video games at the University of Bolton, says that emotive expressiveness in the upper facial region tends to make all the difference: millions of years of evolution has tuned our brains to detect even the slightest “off” feeling in another face and be suspicious of it. “Eyelids, brows, even the tiny wrinkles on the face that appear during speech — that gives the greatest authenticity to a character,” Tinwell says. “False smiles are particularly common because the fidelity of the simulated skin below the eyes isn’t high enough to show the lines and bulges that might be created by a genuine smile.”
And that’s why realism-fetishizing technology like motion capture is much more susceptible to creeping us out than more “primitive” or stylized animation: it’s only when you’re purporting to offer that level of detail in the first place that you can totally, utterly screw it up. And once you’re in that uncanny valley, incremental improvements to skin reflectivity, eye movement, or other “realistic” details simply don’t matter. It’s either 100% perfect or it’s repulsive. In fact, this all-or-nothing aspect has led Tinwell to describe it as an uncanny wall that may never be scaled even as technology continues to advance, just like the runner in Zeno’s paradox never catches up to the tortoise in front of him.
That may be a bit pessimistic. After all, in the hands of a once-in-a-century talent like James Cameron, highly realistic animated characters can rake in billions. But in general, the business case for respecting the perils of the uncanny seems pretty bulletproof. As Shannon Tindle, an Emmy-winning character designer, recently told Salon.com: “Any time you waffle, if you’re somewhere in between reality and stylization, a straight line and a curve, people feel it and they tend to have a bad reaction to it.” This isn’t just a matter of taste. This is the kind of basic human preference that, if ignored, can blow up a Hollywood studio’s whole balance sheet. (Note that when Pixar animator Brad Bird got the itch to tell a more “realistic” visual story, he simply jumped to shooting live action — sidestepping the deadly uncanny valley altogether.)
In video games, the problem is still there but much less dangerous — after all, the fact that Niko Bellic moves and emotes with all the grace of an Xtranormal character didn’t stop millions of players from buying and loving Grand Theft Auto IV. Maybe that’s because video game avatars are essentially more like toys or tools than “characters” in films, whom we’re supposed to relate to as people. Tinwell notes, intriguingly, that the uncanny valley can actually become a powerful tool in the hands of a savvy game designer: after all, plenty of games (especially in the sci-fi or horror genre) require avatar interactions that are supposed to creep you out.
In the end, like most problems that designers grapple with, the uncanny valley isn’t an objectively “good” or “bad” thing. It’s just there, whether we like it or not. And companies and designers who ignore it risk falling into a hole they may not be able to climb out of.