Did The "Uncanny Valley" Kill Disney's CGI Company?

In the days of increasingly powerful CGI, movie makers have to be savvy about making characters that aren't too realistic.

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!):

[Gotta love those nervous chuckles in the background.]

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 "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.

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  • Suskis

    This happens because CGI is still not good enough. When human actors will be replicated perfectly, not only they will be used again: they will be the future of cinema. Reason? Using dead actors for new movies or replacing actors with others in old movies and so on. Nobody says any longer: CGI sfx look fake and are worse than real stuff. This will be the same for actors sooner or later.

  • Michael

    Interesting and amusing article!

    If you haven't already it might be worth looking at Rockstar's new detective game L.A. Noire and how they've handled facial expressions and visual emotion. I would be very interested in your thoughts whether they be zombie related or other!

  • Karalyn

    So far all the comments are very atuned to how horrible CGI looks for some animation but I have yet to see a child of any age get creeped out by the unatural looking characters of any animated film or rather I have yet to hear any critiques via the "playground night at the movies" either, I have always enjoyed animated films and shows and until I hear the concerns from a five year old that the eyes just were'nt right or dead looking then and only then will you have a issue on your hands just saying ;O)

  • Worf

    Because five year olds have so much more experience 'reading' faces than adults. That's why all the Poker Tournaments have five year old champs!

  • Viro Indovina

    Interesting article.

    Regarding TRON:Legacy, the "uncanniness" of Kevin Flynn c. 1989 got in the way of my suspension of disbelief (which I was ready to give up like a groupie) early in the film. I couldn't get past it.

    I might have accepted an uncanny CLU in the grid because, well, it was a game; and game characters get a hall pass through the uncanny valley so they say.

    I remember hearing an interview with Sir Anthony Hopkins when Beowulf came out and he was saying that, for him, there was something missing from the eyes.

    Who knows, maybe the more actors get botoxed the less uncanny waxwork cgi will seem?

  • Bradley Carter

    Great article. I had always thought that CGI was one of those "close but no cigar" type deals.

    I am, however, surprised that the CGI "facelift" for Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy was not mentioned here. I know some people that hated the movie because they felt that it lacked a hearty plot, but the only thing that really bothered me about the film was the obvious falsity of the young Bridges.

  • Rick Canfield

    I believe the problem with a lot of these motion capture productions, aside from the character design itself, is the reliance solely on the technology. The only way for mo.cap to truly work (note: Golem in LotR) would be with manually exaggerating features by hand.Therefore animators are still required to ensure these automated processes, don't look automated.

  • larry lundstrom

    I totally agree — very tough to pay attention when the screen characters are not convincing. Even in Avatar for some reason I found Sigourney Weaver's character hard to believe - probably because I have been watching her since I was young (Alien). The other characters were not as tough to believe, probably because they are relatively new to the screen compared to Sigourney. Hmm.

    I did want to note that I had no intention of seeing "Mars Needs Moms", did not think it was going to be worth watching at all. But the kids and I found ourselves at the movie and it was actually pretty good. Surprising. I left the movie thinking, they got the marketing all wrong. The title itself almost repels kids, dad & possibly moms.

    CGI characters have come a long way. I still dig George Lucas execution of real world, fantasy & CGI compared to most other firms. He set the bar so many years ago.

  • John Pavlus

    agree with you about S. Weaver in Avatar. The performance capture was all over the map in that film: sometimes it was uncanny valley city, sometimes (mostly in the closeups of Neytiri) it was spellbindingly perfect. Maybe it comes down to the performer, how well they "meld" with the tech.

  • Don Jarrell

    As John said, the valley isn't a good or bad thing, just a factor to deal with and understand. I'm a bit surprised he didn't mention how lots of guys had slightly weird and unexplained thoughts after considering Neytiri (the tall, blue, muscular woman in Avatar) totally HOT in a way that was unmatched by other animated "beauties".

  • Chris Reich

    Steven Spielberg once called Walt Disney a master of horror. What kid didn't have the popcorn scared out of him during the fire scene in Bambi? Ever notice how the parents always die in uncle Walt's stories?

    Moving away from creepy might be moving away Disney's roots. The failure of Mars moms was probably due to what Seth Godin calls a meatball sundae, a combination of ingredients that don't go well together like chocolate cake and lemonade.

    In spite of the myriad of books which formulate the successful screenplay, producing the blockbuster remains an elusive accomplishment.

    Chris Reich

  • Daniel

    Excellent piece. I might end all emails with "KILL IT WITH FIRE" from now on.

    Zemeckis' buddy Spielberg seems to understand the problems of the Uncanny Valley – credit is due for making actual humans like Jude Law and Haley Joel Osment uncannily valleyish in AI – so it'll be interesting to see where he goes with the Tintin film.

    And regarding the upper facial region, the late, great Jim Henson knew that half-pingpong balls with black dots drawn on them was always going to be better than … well, have a look: http://muppetswithpeopleeyes.t...

  • John Pavlus

    I had the same thoughts about Spielberg's TinTin project! Altho I have to say I'm less optimistic about him pulling it off in a non-stomach-turning way.

  • Sheena Medina

     John- It looks like we have our answer now that the trailer for TinTin is making the rounds! A comment my friend Rich made in which I totally agree, "What a useless trailer. It just felt like a bunch of shots deliberately chosen because they didn't show how creepy the animated faces (probably) look. Even the one and only clear face shot in it seems to be chosen because it doesn't emote." Spot. On.