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It's Uncanny, This Valley: The Ups And Downs Of Cinematic CGI (In)Humanity

By Rob Payne | Lists | September 22, 2011 |

By Rob Payne | Lists | September 22, 2011 |

Recently, more images from Steven Spielberg’s and Peter Jackson’s computers’ animated adaptation of The Adventures of Tintin showed up at Bleeding Cool and the digital wizardry on display is clearly as impressive as it should be in such capable hands. But like the trailer before, Tintin and his faithful dog Snowy are boldly going where many have accidentally gone before: The Uncanny Valley. For those who don’t know, the Valley is the theoretical place where humanoid entities reside, who are so human but not quite human enough not to be pants-poopingly creepy. The chart below may help wrap your mind around that, but it’s really not as sexy as it seems.


Basically, C3P0 and Bender fall to the left of the divide with you and I falling to the right — the middle is where things get tricky, because not all non-humans are created equal. Not even close. You can thank the Japanese for providing us with a great many real-life creations that eat baby souls in the Uncanny Valley. See?


Told ya it wasn’t sexy.

So, while I didn’t write up a trade news item for Tintin’s inevitable fall into the abyss (due to clogged internet tubes and not really caring about Tintin in any substantial way), the new stills did inspire me to do one thing that I did promptly upon seeing them. I threw up in my mouth, but only a little bit. Then I decided to make a Seriously Random List of the Five Worst and Five Best instances of filmmakers trying to capture the indomitable human spirit with nothing but pixels and Photoshop.

Below are the results of some terrifying Google Image searches that seem to reveal one truism if you’re going balls out with CGI realism: Do not, under any circumstances, model your characters on the flesh and blood actors providing their voices, or real life celebrities in general. The human eye can immediately see the inauthentic features and it freaks us the fuck out. Of course, every rule does have its exceptions. (Also, it appears that the quality of the movie has almost nothing to do with whether or not audiences escape the Uncanny Valley unscathed. Enjoy!)

The Worst

Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, Tom Hanks, and Tom Hanks in The Polar Express


Robert Zemeckis’s Polar Express might currently be the most well known example of Uncannyvalliness, with Tom Hanks playing four distinct roles, and each character modeled after his doughy visage. After the film’s supposedly delightful Christmas release, a generation of children either suffered from unspeakable nightmares or they now have an unhealthy fascination with dead-eyed plasticity. Keep your eyes peeled on the Real Doll market for proof.

Angelina Jolie as Grendel’s Mom in Beowulf


As much as fanboys like me may have wanted Angelina Jolie to make another deposit into the pop culture spank bank with her golden butt in Beowulf, her vaguely blow-up doll features were amplified to near hilarity as a CGI monster. Thanks, in part, to her character’s self-imposed lizardly stiffness. C’est la vie, there’s always Hackers. It should be noted this is another Robert Zemeckis vehicle. We’re gonna see his name at least two more times on this list.

Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy


Admittedly, the Tron Legacy animators did an amazing job of turning Old Jeff Bridges into Younger Jeff Bridges, it’s probably the best special effect in a movie containing only special effects. But once Clu starts speaking and sharing scenes with supposedly living and breathing performers, it’s clear how unnatural he is. It’s also clear how much Clu wants to kill all humans, and that’s only partially due to Bridges’ performance. The phrase, a doll’s eyes… comes to mind.

Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone in Antz


Most of the entries on this list, especially on the Worst side, are of characters meant to be human, but the Uncanny Valley also houses creatures who are merely meant to resemble humans. Thus, we come to DreamWorks’ first animated feature film, Antz, whose leads were meant to be caricatures of their vocal talents, specifically Woody Allen and Sylvester Stallone. Maybe it’s because the two actors are already pretty cartoonish in reality, but if you ever watch the movie, it’s really no wonder why A Bug’s Life is universally considered the superior CGI ant film of 1998.

All the humans in Mars Needs Moms


Full Disclosure: I have not seen Robert Zemeckis’s Mars Needs Moms, nor do I plan on seeing it. I don’t have to. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, and I reserve the right to withhold judgment until I deem you worthy of reconsideration. The trailers made it obvious that even though he learned not to base his CGI people off of actual people, Zemeckis still hasn’t learned how to make them not look like chupacabra. It’s that whole empathy axis on the chart that he almost always fails to meet. Hell, even the aliens are more pleasing to look at than the humans (the ones we’re meant to empathize with):


The Best

Dr. Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within


While a decent movie that was an unfortunate waste of a franchise, Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within was one of the first movies to ever attempt such dramatic realism in a computer animated feature, and this was in 2001, before Gollum was even a gleam in WETA’s all-seeing eye. Not all of the characters in the movie pass the sniff test — hello Alec Baldwin! — but Ming-Na’s Aki Ross was good enough to appear in Maxim, and it was only slightly awkward.

Beowulf in Beowulf


Like Spirits Within, list stalwart Robert Zemeckis’s Beowulf isn’t a total sale (see the aforementioned Grendel’s Mom and John Malkovich’s Unferth, though he is hardly the animator’s fault), but Beowulf himself is a phenomenal work of art. It’s easy to see when watching the movie that all the time and care was taken to make Ray Winstone’s interpretation of the character the definitive one, and it totally works. A big part of that is due to the fact that Beowulf does not look like Ray Winstone.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Salvation


The Governator’s rejuvenated cameo in Terminator: Salvation is one of the few, probably one of the only, instances where modeling the digital creation on a celebrity absolutely works. Part of that is due to the quality of the effects, but let’s be honest, Ahnuld’s performance in the first Terminator doesn’t exactly chew scenery so much as stare coldly at it, and his co-stars. Making a robotic actor appear to be a cyborg is a lot easier than making him emotive (see: Kindergarten Cop). That he fits seamlessly with Christian Bale is just icing on the dried up post-apocalyptic cake.

The Na’vi in Avatar


Similar to Antz, James Cameron’s Native American stand-ins are less human and more human-like in his Dances With Wolves In Space, and Neytiri and Jake Sully’s avatar are similarly based on the movie’s stars, Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington. Unlike Antz, the trick works here and you don’t want to claw your eyes out the entire run time. At least, not from the CGI. Okay, so, Sigourney Weaver’s alien representative is a little unsettling, but only because we’re so used to seeing her real face. Otherwise, her avatar isn’t that much of a horror show:


Caesar in The Rise of the Planet of the Apes


Finding five suitable entries for the best attempts at avoiding the Uncanny Valley is hard enough including Avatar, so I suppose Caesar in the new Planet of the Apes might be a cop out. But, damn if I haven’t seen a better full-fledged CGI character. A lot of that credit, naturally, goes to actor, and motion capture performance art specialist, Andy Serkis, yet the digital artistry is immediately apparent. Caesar will always look computer generated in the same way Roger Rabbit will always be a cartoon, but his face expresses more genuine human emotion than James Franco ever will. There hasn’t been a CG creation that inhabits the tangible world quite like Caesar. As the soul of the film, he definitely scales the top of Uncanny Valley chart.

If you’re like me, any trip through the digitized Uncanny Valley is equally entertaining and frightening. Just remember, these things aren’t real and they can’t hurt you. At least not yet.

Rob Payne also writes the indie comic The Unstoppable Force, co-hosts the podcast We’re Not Fanboys, and tweets on the Twitter @RobOfWar. He barely climbs out of the Uncanny Valley himself sometimes, so this list is really just the pot calling the kettle back.