Understanding The Uncanny Valley
Modern pop culture is filled with terms that try to describe the media we consume. With new phrases and new definitions emerging all the time, it can be difficult to know what the new terminology actually means, even when you hear it frequently. We Ladies like to provide some clarity by defining some of these commonly heard terms that people may not fully understand. We did it with "Mary Sue" and now we're tackling the "uncanny valley."
The term has become increasingly common with the rise of computer animation and computer effects in live action films. Most people understand that it has to do with attempts to create realistic human characters and when they don't quite work. But beyond that, the exact definition isn't always clear and not everyone gets it right. Even the well-known explanation from 30 Rock has its problems.
So what is the uncanny valley? At its most basic, it's an idea about how we perceive attempts to create a representation of a realistic human. Generally, the more "human" something looks, the more we like it and empathize with it. Just check out a few pictures of inanimate objects with googly eyes applied to them and you'll get the idea. But the hypothesis of the uncanny valley suggests that the effect eventually backfires. As the representation becomes closer to a real human, it hits a point where some people find it creepy instead of relatable. The "almost, but not quite" human can be perceived as unsettling, or even repellent. The "valley" comes from the idea that the pleasing and relatable qualities of a human-like creation hit a nadir and then slowly climb back up as the representation gets closer to being indistinguishable from a real person.
There are several theories about why this is. Seeing a human that looks slightly off in some way may trigger some sense that our distant ancestors used to identify sickness or distinguish their own species from other early primates. It may be that we spend so much time observing other humans that anything less than perfect human appearance and behavior jumps out as us as "wrong." It's even been suggested that seeing this not quite human might stir up uncomfortable feelings about our uniqueness or mortality. That last idea makes particular sense in the original context of the uncanny valley. The term was first used to describe the potential unsettling effects of robots as they came to resemble humans more and more. But as computer animation has become more and more common, the term has been most commonly associated with computer generated human characters.
Sticking with the 30 Rock example, your average Star Wars droid is way on the opposite side from a real human, out of the valley and highly relatable. C-3PO may have some recognizable human features and proportions, but we know he's not meant to seem fully human. So we aren't bothered by the fact that his movements are stiff rather than fluid. Our brains have already put him in the category of "not a human," so the unsettling effect never happens.
The far topside of the uncanny valley isn't limited to friendly robots. There are plenty of human computer animated characters who most audiences still find loveable. Take Bob Parr/Mr. Incredible from Pixar's The Incredibles. We get right away that he's a human, but not a realistic representation of one. His proportions, like those of most human Pixar characters, are exaggerated to the point where he'd never pass for a live actor. He is a clear caricature of a real human. His movements and acting sell us on the idea that he is "real" for the purposes of this story, but we're not going to confuse him with the guy next to us in the theater.
My main issue with the 30 Rock example is the CG stormtrooper, which is not a great example of something in the uncanny valley. Stormtroopers are purposefully made to feel less human already, as they're covered head to toe in armor. That armor consists mainly of the kind of hard, shiny surfaces that computers are great at rendering. So unless you have a stormtrooper removing his helmet or moving in a way that looks really unnatural, you're unlikely to have the same kind of reaction that you would to something more recognizably human.
A better example is the 2011 flop Mars Needs Moms, a joint venture between Disney and ImageMovers. The latter studio also produced The Polar Express, another frequently cited example of uncanny valley problems. Both film utilize motion capture, which tends to heighten the feeling of unease. The audience is seeing the movements of actual human beings as performed by CG characters who don't quite pass as human. You don't have metal instead of skin or exaggerated proportions to make it easy for your brain to categorize what you're seeing as something separate. It looks kind of human, but something is wrong.
Though the uncanny valley hypothesis specifically refers to humans, you can have a similar effect with computer animated animals. CG creatures can also look just off enough to be unsettling. But since we're not nearly as familiar with the appearance and movements of gorillas, tigers, or dinosaurs as we are with human features and motions, the unsettling feeling is often much more subtle or nonexistent.
Though it's not the ultimate goal for everybody, many effects studios are looking to cross to uncanny valley, to create a computer rendered human character that can stand side by side with a living human and be just as "real" and compelling. As the potential for computer graphics continues to improve, we're getting ever closer to that point, which brings with it a whole slew of new questions. Will it ever be more cost-effective than using a real person? Who gets credit for the performance? Will actors and their estates be able to maintain control over their likenesses and performances? For now though, the main question is where the next breakthrough will be that gets us another step closer to the other side of the uncanny valley.