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Nov 10, 2004 11:47pm

three about the uncanny valley

I saw three items today written about the "Uncanny Valley".

The Beat confirms my suspicions that the new Polar Express movie will be a creep show of the first order:

While the POLAR EXPRESS trailer is supposed to fill tots with joyful feelings of glee and awe and meeting Santa, the actual result of these not-quite-humans is more likely to be a deep sense of insecurity and fear. Take it from The Beat : the beds of American children are going to be soaked with anxiety pee after watching a creepy digital Tom Hanks shout "All aboard!!!" and wave his arms for a couple of hours.

My thoughts exactly - every time I see the trailer, all the children seem to move like reanimated corpses, dead eyes and lips channelling speech from beyond the grave. It's the same fundamental problem exhibited in the Final Fantasy movie from a few years ago, when I first read about the Uncanny Valley. The characters in that movie were also too close to real.

Pixar generally takes the opposite route, forgoing hyperrealism for cartoon realism. You can see it in the models for the new Incredibles movie: characters' ears are left undetailed, eyes are enormous, and the motion is sleek and stylized. RobotJohnny says as much in a post about the movie (which I saw and loved - go see it!):

The moment I saw the trailer for The Incredibles, I knew that Pixar had done something that no 3D film had done yet--they had created human characters that had some style to them and that didn't try to emulate life. ... Whats great about the characters in The Incredibles is that they are first and foremost cartoons. They look like they've jumped out of a Chuck Jones short or something Disney might have produced in the 60s.

I'm not sure I agree that no 3D film has done this before - director Brad Bird's previous feature film was the underappreciated Iron Giant, which features a remarkable robot modelled in 3D but rendered in 2D cartoon style. There's a revelatory moment about halfway into the film when the Giant smiles, and the motion is expressed perfectly through the movement of just four active pieces: one jaw, two eyelids, one head. The theatre lit up in response. Pixar's previous movies also exhibit such attention to the right level of realism - I'm sure it's no accident that their first few films focused on toys, lamps, bicycles and other inanimate objects, where you can get more mileage out of focusing on characteristic motion instead of rendering flesh correctly.

Some last thoughts stolen from Imomus:

The place where the 'credibility gap' or the 'uncanny valley' occurs is not at the point furthest from the truth, but at the point closest to it. When something is almost credible, it lacks credibility. When it's completely incredible, it has an odd sort of believability. Once a thesis gets overstated, the antithesis has a tendency to rush in, even if the truth lies closer to the thesis than the antithesis.


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