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    uncanny valley

    I'm giving some thought to reprising my "horror"-themed Composition syllabus next semester, and I know for a fact that I'll be doing a guest lecture on Shaun of the Dead... somehow I can see myself drawing a version of this up on the board:


    Aaaah!  Zombies!

    (From the Wikipedia article on the Uncanny Valley, apparently a phenomenon debated among roboticists and CGI dorks.)

    It'll be a hell of a lot easier to teach the uncanny with this diagram than it will be to attempt to teach the Freud essay from which the term derives: although the Freud is interesting and historically important, it spends a lot of time developing a read of an E. T. A. Hoffmann story from 1816 ("Der Sandmann"), which is not exactly a cultural reference that most eighteen-year-olds have at the ready.

    (Interestingly, neither the Uncanny Valley page nor the E. T. A. Hoffmann page in Wikipedia contains mention of Freud, and the Freud page doesn't contain mention of Freud's theory of the uncanny. A rare Wikipedia blind spot?)

    Thanks to Angela.


    Tuesday, July 25, 2006
    1:02 PM


    The Uncanny Valley is a really interesting phenomenon. It's a likely explanation, for instance, for why a lot of people didn't like the movie The Polar Express. The characters are so remarkably life-like that we're constantly eminded of -- and repulsed by -- the elements that aren't life-like (in this case mostly the eyes).

    In discussing why some CGI creations don't fall victim to this, Roger Ebert once wrote:

    "The genius of Gollum is that it seems like a convincingly real creature -- but not one we have ever seen before, so that its realism does not seem creepy except in the ordinary way."

    I don't think a robot that looked completely human would disturb us -- at least not aesthetically -- just as a robot with only a few human characteristics doesn't disturb us. It's only in that margin of the Uncanny Valley when we recognize that something's just not right.
    Yes! The article mentions Polar Express by name, but also the more-stylized The Incredibles as a similar film (CGI film featuring mostly humans) that gets around the Uncanny problem.
    The Incredibles works aesthetically largely because the characters are deliberately cartoonish. It may seem ironic, or even counter-intuitive, but by appearing less photo-real than the characters in The Polar Express, for instance, Pixar's characters seem more real, more sympathetic.

    Word is that the motion-capture technology used in The Polar Express has evolved somewhat since its release. Robert Zemeckis is currently filming a version of Beowulf using it, but in this case they're using sensors around the actors' eyes. Hopefullt that should allow the characters on screen to appear more life-like and expressive.
    I'm interested in the way that Linklater's recent animated features—Waking Life and Scanner Darkly—both kind of flirt with the edge of the Valley... perhaps intentionally so, as both films seem to deal with thematic material of disorientation & disequilibrium.
    I think, having seen Waking Life and heard interviews with Linklater about Scanner -- and having read the source novel by Philip K. Dick -- I'd have to say it's pretty intentional. I think what Linklater's looking for is the realism you don't necessarily get with cartoons but also the weird, off-centering effects you can only get with animation.

    Some critics, though, including Keith Phipps of The Onion, thought the animation actually worked against Scanner. Phipps writes:

    "... Scanner's most striking element, the animation that was so perfect for Waking Life, works against it in the end. What ought to be a story of failing flesh and blood stays squarely in the realm of ideas. It's a head-trip that never gets beneath the skin."
    Also of interest, possibly, is the recent uproar over critic Mick LaSalle's review of the stop-motion animation in "Monster House":

    You mentioned the Wikipedia blind spots - when you found them missing did you consider logging in and adding them? I'm curious, because while much is made over the instant-edit-ability of wikipedia, for most people the psychological barrier to entering their first edit is quite high....
    I did consider it, but I did not do it. I think you are right to say that there is a high psychological barrier involved...

    That said, in the time between writing this post and writing this response, I have, in fact, made my first Wikipedia edit (although not to any of the posts mentioned here).
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