Creepy Babies, Emotive Robots & Tom Hanks

James Dowell A while back we heard from Aldrich about how to animate movement, and how (and why) to make that movement convincing. But what about the models themselves? What about the actual appearance of what you’re animating? If you’re going to be animating something’s movement in a realistic way, surely you want that thing to look as realistic as possible, right?

Good god man, no!

Without boring you with its roots in the field of robotics, Jentsch and Freud (thanks, Wikipedia!) There’s a theory that hypothesises that the more human-like something non-human is designed to appear, there’s a point just shy of a perfect human copy at which the model becomes creepy and unsettling. Not the most desirable aspect to have in your film if you’re an animator (unless you’re going for creepy, in which case – solid!)

Comic book writer, illustrator and right-wing nut Frank Miller summed it up well when he said:

The more real you make something, the faker it looks.

So without further ado, here are three of my favourite ‘huh…’, ‘eugh’ and ‘blech!’ moments of creepy animation.

So first off, I like Pixar, but their 1988 short Tin Toy is creepy baby city. In stark contrast to the later, cartoonier modelling of humans that they demonstrated in Toy Story (1995) and The Incredibles (2004), the baby here is just a horrorshow of slightly odd proportions, jarring movement and utter lack of appeal.

Enki Bilal, a Czech writer and illustrator working in the French comics scene, created a super-cool series of comics called The Nikopol Trilogy. Not widely recognised in the English-reading comics world, but huge in la France, Bilal branched out with a filmic adaptation of his trilogy, renamed Immortel (Ad Vitam), in 2004. Now, it came out at the same time as the American Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and the Japanese live-action Casshern, and the next year Sin City came out, an inkling of there being a mini-trend that hasn’t really taken off just yet; all four films featured live actors emoting their hearts out in front of green screens, with almost everything else on screen inserted in post with CGI.

Immortel (Ad Vitam) however, went one step further. Outside of the principal actors (a small group of four or five individuals) every other character – human or human/animal (well, human/ancient Egyptian god) hybrid – was CGI. It’s quite a sight.

Pay close attention to the next clip, as many of the artificial actors in it are wearing helmets or masks. In fact, you may need to hunt this one down to fully understand just how unsettling it is to watch real humans interact with plastic-looking fake ones. It’s difficult to enjoy or appreciate the story over your own cries of “Why?!*”

And here it is, the most oft-cited example of the uncanny valley in effect in cinema, Tom Hanks in 2004’s The Polar Express. Intended to be sweet, heartwarming and endearing, the finished film is wince-inducing, and teeth-suckingly creepy. Total hide-behind-the-couch material here, folks.

Ok, so that’s all good and well, but what about video games? Many have realistically human-looking characters, and people don’t seem to get freaked out as much with them (sure, this is almost purely anecdotal, but I’ll continue.) I really think that the factor of interaction is not to be underestimated. I mean, to the removed observer, some things may seem odd due to a lack of context, but to the involved user things are normalised and more acceptable through that level of interaction.

Simply, game players are active participants, film-goers are passive observers. In some tenuous support of my fantastic(ly loosely concocted) theory, an article on popularmechanics.com suggests that the Uncanny Valley doesn’t actually exist as an overarching phenomenon, and examples of it are generally explained by the specific details of each case – for example, a character may have mismatched degrees of realism (hyper-realistic skin, but cartoony eyes, for example).

In fact (and we’re getting a little away from film here for a moment,) the article details the differing reactions that people have viewing humanoid robots in videos vs. in person:

Two of the robots that inspire the most terror—and accompanying YouTube comments—are Osaka University’s CB2, a child-like, gray-skinned robot, and KOBIAN, Waseda University’s hyper-expressive humanoid. In person, no one rejected the robots. No one screamed and threw chairs at them, or smiled politely and slipped out to report lingering feelings of abject horror.

So there you have it. Maybe it’s all rubbish, maybe not. Have we learned anything? Yes.

[insert joke about Tom Hanks’ (acting/appearance/choice of films to appear in) here]

*Why? Probably because it was cheaper than hiring more actors.



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