There are definitely some art projects you shouldn’t experience under the influence of hallucinogens, for instance, Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, Ron Mueck’s giant sculptures, or Lingxizhu Meng’s baby-pets. You can add to that list Parametric Expression, a new short film by Canadian artist Mike Pelletier that is one part Fantastic Planet, one part Lawnmower Man, and one part Hellraiser. Eerie, otherworldly, and more than a little horrifying, it will definitely make an impression.
In Parametric Expression, a pair of nude, hairless computer models repeat the same off-putting facial expressions in a digital limbo that seems to exist somewhere between the uncanny valley and hell. Sometimes the faces will glitch out, blooming into a blood-colored biomass of intertwining polygons. Other times, these visages will just twitch and leer, pulling back their muscles into ever-intensifying rictuses that, in humans, would cause their facial muscles to roll up like window shades. It’s disturbing.
As its name implies, Parametric Expression is ultimately about what happens when the expressions on the faces around us—the wistful smile, the sarcastic smirk, the suggestive grin, the angry grimace—are converted from muscle memory into parameters an algorithm can understand. "I was trying to explore what it means when you reduce emotion to measurable, repeatable processes," says Pelletier.
Parametric Expression was created in MakeHuman, an open-source tool for parametrically modeling different characters. "With MakeHuman, you start with generic androgynous characters and by adjusting sliders for features such as gender, age, weight, height, muscle tone, etc., you can quickly create a very wide variety of human characters," explains Pelletier. "It’s a very powerful tool, but it’s also a very strange way of looking at people."
It was this feeling of strangeness that was the bulk of Pelletier’s inspiration. "The uncanny valley effect is now something that many people are familiar with, and whenever there’s errors in the way a person’s face is represented, it can provoke strong reactions," Pelletier tells me. "With time, finesse, and skill, some of the effects of the uncanny valley can be avoided, but I wanted to see what was possible when you embrace rather than avoid the uncanny valley. I wanted to see if there’s any beauty to be found inside that valley."
And as Pelletier would be the first to admit, exploring emotion and facial expressions parametrically in the uncanny valley can end up being a pretty discomfiting experience. Everything about Parametric Expression is tinged with a feeling of wrongness. In fact, when Pelletier tried to introduce motion capture at the end of the piece, he wasn’t able to inject the missing humanity. "The collision between realistic motion data, the 3D rigging errors, and the frozen facial expression just amplified the wrongness factor," Pelletier says. The model becomes like a demon, lurching toward the camera at the end of a Japanese horror movie.
Parametric Expression isn’t exactly comforting art, nor does it find a path through the uncanny valley. Instead, it just strands you there, and it turns out that the uncanny valley is a worse place than you could possibly imagine. Be warned.
You can find more of Pelletier’s work here.