OPINION: CGI Characters and the Perils of the Uncanny Valley
Have you ever watched a movie featuring a CGI character? I doubt that the answer is no, and if it is, I’m quite impressed. If you’ve ever watched a Hollywood Blockbuster, you’ve likely been witness to characters created entirely through CGI animation. CGI characters are those that may sound human, featuring the voices of actors you recognize, but are otherwise completely false. CGI animation allows filmmakers to create characters from different planets, different races, even characters as mundane as a talking cat. You can do anything with CGI animation, of course, and as time moves forward and technology advances, these characters are only going to become more prominent and utilized more. This is where the Uncanny Valley comes into play.
“The Uncanny Valley” is a concept initially coined by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics engineer. In short, the term refers to the hypothetical “area” that some robots/simulations fall into. Basically, the more human a robot is made to look, the more unsettling it is. While it is a term coined initially for robots, it has been applied to films many times and, with the aforementioned advent of CGI animation, has become even more prevalent.
Perhaps a character is not human, and instead of utilizing prosthetic makeup as they may have once done, studios now prefer to utilized advanced special effects to bring these impossible characters to like. It’s easier and cheaper as the technology becomes more available.
We, as a people and as an audience, respond differently to these kinds of characters. Take Dobby, for example. A house elf, a servant, a devious little critter responsible for causing Harry Potter a whole lot of stress. While the special effects used to create him are look a little dated by today’s standards, Dobby as a character is “accepted” by the audience. People cry when Dobby dies. Despite the fact that he isn’t real, he is real enough in the magical world of Harry Potter, within the context of that universe. Dobby is an elf, a magical creature. Of course he doesn’t look human. Of course he is short, has huge ears and a big nose. None of that is creepy or unsettling. He has a big, emotional send-off. In a movie franchise where several prominent characters are killed, the death of a little animated house elf that doesn’t exist anywhere in our own world is one of the most prominent, memorable and saddest moments.
Thanos, Marvel’s newest and biggest baddie, is a perfect example of a good CGI character that steers clear of falling deep into the Uncanny Valley. At no point does he look anything other than spectacular, animation wise. The special effects work in Infinity War looks marvelous almost one hundred percent of the time and Thanos is easily the highlight. He looks real, as real as an 8ft, muscular purple man can look. He is entirely convincing because he isn’t designed to be human-esque. As part of an alien race, he has some humanoid features, yet is far enough away from human that the minds of the audience are not put off by him.
He has a real screen presence, having some of the best moments in the film. When he fights the Hulk (Another excellently realized CGI character), it doesn’t look like two giant, multi-colored CGI models having a brawl. They look like real characters, with real weight behind each punch. It’s as if Marvel put out a casting call in outer space and a real, giant purple alien just so happened to be looking for his big break. It was meant to be.
Now, lets take a look at Alita: Battle Angel, which is the complete opposite. This movie falls head first into the Uncanny Valley by attempting to create realistic looking CGI characters. Alita, herself, is rather unsettling to look at. All it takes is one quick glance to tell that she isn’t human, far from it. Her eyes alone are enough to signal it. Large, overly large, bug like eyes that stick out like a sore thumb. Some may say that it is a conscious design choice, inspired by the traditionally big “anime eyes” that are common in Japanese manga like Battle Angel Alita. Despite this assumption, there is no getting around the fact that she does in fact look horrifying. The human brain is smart, but can be easily tricked. Alita looks so close to human, yet the fact she is clearly also not human is enough to make you take a second glance, doubt your own senses and feel a bit uneasy. There is no point during any trailer where I, personally, think she is real. Her appearance makes me uneasy. Seeing her interact with other, clearly human, characters makes me uneasy. Do they not notice it? How can they stand there talking to her as if she’s a real thing? I can’t concentrate on the story, or anything else. These thoughts flood my mind and are deafening.
Avatar, another James Cameron property, suffers with this as well. The big blue avatars that the characters use to interact with the native Na’Vi of Pandora are giant, blue skinned aliens with tails and magic tentacle hair. They also, however, feature super realistic human faces. Sigourney Weaver’s avatar looks nothing like her, apart from the face. This is bordering somewhere on the edge of the Uncanny Valley. These aliens are far enough away from looking human to the point where they aren’t necessarily disturbing, but close to it. If the Uncanny Valley was a cliff-face, Avatar is teetering on the very edge, while Alita is lying dead at the bottom. Basically, what I’m trying to say, is that James Cameron has reached the point at which the Uncanny Valley does not have any effect on him. Good for him.
And so, to round out this article, I’ll leave you with the most egregious example of the Uncanny Valley in cinema. The 2007, Robert Zemeckis directed, computer animated film Beowulf. This film gave me nightmares as a 10 year old boy. I would pass by the living room, see my parents watching it and just…stare. Honestly, pictures don’t do it justice. If your reading this, please, seek out the film. Don’t pay for it, it’s not worth it, maybe look for the trailer on YouTube. The film is entirely computer animated, featuring some of the most horrific looking attempts at creating realistic looking animated characters that I’ve ever seen. My adolescent brain was so confused that I just used to get headaches whenever this film would even be mentioned in conversation, the striking images haunted my nightmares. Thankfully, the film isn’t in syndication that much, if at all, anymore. This film, to me, will always be at the bottom of the Uncanny Valley. James Cameron can try his best, but he’ll never make me feel as uncomfortable as I did when watching Beowulf.