Wednesday, April 30, 2008
CG Isn't Sexy: The Uncanny Valley Principal
I was waiting for someone to put this clip online, and here it is. In last week's episode of 30 Rock, Tracey decides his legacy will be to give the world the first great porn video game. Judah Friedlander explains why this is impossible, because of what he dubs (and what will forever be known as) The Uncanny Valley. All CG-happy filmmakers need to watch this clip before the movie-going public has to deal with another freaky, gold version of Angelina Jolie that doesn't have nipples but does have a tail. Uch.
Coincidentally, Sam of Sam and Max: Freelance Police (as channeled through comic genius Steve Purcell) recently had this to say about his computer-generated counterpart currently starring in Telltale's episodic adventure games ;
"We're depicted by patented, computer-generated simulacrums called "sythespians". They act up a storm for just pennies and except for the dead, soulless looks on their pasty, inhuman mugs I actually prefer them to our real selves!"
That is exactly why I can't get into those games, as big a Sam and Max fan as I am. That and I don't own a PC.
Just to drive the point home, some classic examples of the Uncanny Valley in action, after the jump...
Here's that horrible Final Fantasy movie from 2001. I actually saw this in theaters for some reason, and spent the whole time trying to put my finger on what was wrong with the way the characters move. Every gesture and change in facial expression is agonizingly slow, and weirdly fluid. This is back when people thought all you had to do to for realistic motion-capture was to tape a bunch of ping pong balls to a green screen suit. Shudder.
Since his lecture was framed around Star Wars, it seems like Jonah would have wanted to mention the public relations disaster that was Jar-Jar. Maybe they just didn't want to go there. I didn't even want to put a picture up. Cartoonish yet disturbingly bound to selective laws of real world physics, horribly ugly (he's got seg-ment-ed eyes!), and with a loping gait that would have flunked him out of clown college, he is genuinely upsetting to watch. It's upsetting to even talk about him, really. Let's move on.
Just look at this nightmare of soulless devil children and floppy, way-too-slow CG physics. What circuit is Robert Zemeckis missing from his brain that makes him think this is a good way to make a movie?
It's worth noting that the Uncanny Valley principal can be used in a filmmaker's favor when creating a CG character that is meant to be disturbing. Some successes in this vein include General Grevious, Davey Jones from Pirates II and III (and then at least they kept Bill Nighy's actual eyes), and of course the most well regarded CG performance to date, Andy Serkis's turn as Gollum. Gollum was actually TOO uncanny for me to be captivated by, I never believed his shiny skin texture and cartoonishly bulging eyes actually existed in that rough, tactile world of New Zealand, or wherever those books take place. Here's that scene that made people want to give Serkis a hundred Oscars for, but I still find too silly and unrefined to take seriously as any kind of brave-new-world indicator of how CG can blend with acting. But I can't deny, it's creepy as hell.