into the (uncanny) valley

Amongst the many traditions commonly observed during the Christmas and New Year break is watching films on TV that you’ve seen countless times before. In keeping with that tradition one of the films I watched again this Christmas was Spielberg’s Adventures of Tintin and it reminded me how much I’ve come to dislike animated films made using CGI.

Like everyone else, I enjoyed Toy Story when it came out, marveling at what computer animation was capable of. But the style and aesthetic of CGI animations now have, for me, a chilliness about them. They lack any obvious sense of human feeling about them. Their lines are too clean, the colours too bright, even when they are dark. And overwhelmed by the possibilities offered by the software, the animators overwhelm us, with detail. Every thread, every hair, every blade of grass or leaf is on show, much more detail than our eyes normally take in, especially when watching live action films. Which effectively undermines the animators attempt to create an illusion of perspective and real space. Instead the glut of detail sucks space out of the frame and pushes everything upfront and onto the same visual plane.

Lord of the Rings director Peter Jackson, whose company Weta Digital provided the animation for Tintin, said that they set out to show the ‘fibres of their clothing, the pores of their skin and each individual hair’. For Jackson the aim was to make the characters ‘photorealistic‘ but what such details actually does is push his characters into the ‘uncanny valley‘.

The uncanny valley is a proposition that features that look almost, but not quite, human, cause a sense of revulsion. Most of us we will have no problem with animated figures that are hand drawn or modeled, unless we dislike the style of drawing or modelling. However, when computer animators attempt to create ‘real figures’, such as Spielberg’s Tintin or more notoriously Robert Zemeckis’s Polar Express or Beowulf, the not-quite-humanness of the characters can repulsion in the viewer. It is a contested idea but there’s no doubting how uncomfortable watching some of these films are.

It occurs to me that CGI animators (and robotics engineers whose products are the other main candidates for taking us to the uncanny valley) might be at a similar stage to 14th and 15th Century European painters who were coming to terms with the potential of both perspective and oil paint to produce paintings capable of a depth and illusion unavailable to earlier artists.

In paintings by Uccello for example, a strange tension arises between the three dimensional modelling of the figures, animals and landscape they inhabit and the stiffness and formality of their apparent movements. In fact they don’t move, not in any illusionistic sense, not in the the figures of Titian or Caravaggio would move some hundred or so years later. Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Marriage is another example of a reach for a depth of realism which ends up just missing the mark.

What is separates these early renaissance paintings from 21st Century computer animation (apart from 500 odd years) is that the paintings are still compelling. Maybe the uncanny valley moment of revulsion lies in the movement of the animations or robots. Certainly the sculpture of a super realist like Duane Hanson tends to excite curiosity rather than revulsion, even though he, like Peter Jackson, was striving for hyper-realism in his sculptures.

In the end though, I think what CGI animation suffers from is a lack of touch. Talking about the late painter Michael Andrews, his friend and fellow painter Frank Auerbach commented on Andrews ‘touch’, his ability with paint that distinguished his painting, a quality that as much as his subject matter made the work personal to Andrews. Touch is a rare thing. Looking through a book of about Jackson Pollock it seems to me that his work undergoes a qualitative shift around 1943 as it becomes more abstract in form, developing a new lightness and rhythm that leads up to his ‘breakthrough’ drip paintings a few years later.

Touch is something unique to each artist and I think many never achieve it, they labour away conforming to standards set by others rather than finding their own expression and having confidence in that. CGI animators and directors like Jackson seem to be trapped by possibilities of the medium and a desire to show off all it can do, without asking themselves is it really necessary. In the end Spielberg and Jackson’s film might be technically impressive, it may avoid trundling into the uncanny valley, but for me Herge’s drawings are much more entertaining, expressive and a joy to look at.



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2 responses to “into the (uncanny) valley

  1. Great insight Martin, thanks for it. I have watched loads of films with CGI and have often felt ‘discomfort’ with their creepiness and your comments here have put it so succinctly; you are so right. There again I have seen films with CGI and not noticed it’s presence at all so it must depend on the style of the illustration. I also think it is affected by scale as in the cinema as opposed to on tv at home. Huge screens are just not realistic for close up shots even in real film work. I detest seeing every pore and nose hair, wrinkle and crease, it takes away the reality and in my opinion leaves me feeling a bit sick. Whilst in art I can admire the sheer skill of the hyperrealist painters I still find them cold, technical and lacking in anything I want to spend time looking at. If you want that sort of finish just enlarge a good photo!

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