Uncanny unhumans

I never heard of the “uncanny valley” until I read about it this evening in an article in the Wall Street Journal. I had forgotten about the preview I had seen, some time back, for the Tintin movie coming out in December – though at the time I was very excited at the prospect.

I don’t know when I first became acquainted with the Tintin stories. When I was a student in Spain, I saw Tintin books (translated to Spanish, of course – I waited until I was traveling in France to buy some in the original French). Tintin and Captain Haddock seemed somehow very familiar to me – especially Haddock’s temper and swearing – and I was sure I must have seen a cartoon adaptation (translated to English) as a child.

I haven’t encountered anyone else who remembers it, but I must at some point have seen Hergé’s Adventures of Tintin, which was apparently aired in the U.S. during my childhood. Perhaps it was nostalgia for those early not-quite-remembered shows, or maybe it’s just that Hergé’s Tintin books are just so good, but I quickly became a fan of the books. When we moved to Muscatine, I was thrilled to discover that the local library has a large number of them in their children’s section (including at least one in French!).

The WSJ article, however, made me realize that I might not end up enjoying Spielberg’s movie as well as I had hoped. The movie uses a process called motion capture, “a process in which filmmakers map the body and facial movements of real actors to make animated characters appear more lifelike on screen.” It works very well for non-human characters, such as Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. But it doesn’t work so well for humans.

I remember being somewhat disappointed with The Polar Express (though not as much, I would guess, as people who had fond memories of the book from their childhoods – I don’t remember ever having read the book). At the time I couldn’t put my finger on what was wrong with it, but now I’m sure that some of it was the “uncanny valley” problem.

I do remember thinking, with each of the Toy Story movies, that I preferred the scenes where there were only toys present, no humans. (The dog was OK, better than the humans, but not nearly as good as the toys.) The computer graphics are fantastic with inanimate objects – or rather, objects which are normally inanimate but came to live in the Toy Story movies. But the human characters just don’t look right at all. I didn’t like even seeing them on the screen.

Animated humans are fine. Whether very stylized, or more or less realistic, they’re far from the near-realism of motion capture. But when a character in a movie is supposed to look like a real-life person, in 3D and with textured skin and hair and realistic body movements, there’s something very unpleasant about how unreal it looks while coming so close.

That unpleasant impression has been labeled the “uncanny valley,” a phenomenon first observed with human-like robots, long before movie technology allowed for motion capture. Of the theories suggested to explain it, the one that makes most sense to me is “violation of human norms.”

If an entity looks sufficiently nonhuman, its human characteristics will be noticeable, generating empathy. However, if the entity looks almost human, it will elicit our model of a human other and its detailed normative expectations. The nonhuman characteristics will be noticeable, giving the human viewer a sense of strangeness. In other words, a robot stuck inside the uncanny valley is no longer being judged by the standards of a robot doing a passable job at pretending to be human, but is instead being judged by the standards of a human doing a terrible job at acting like a normal person.

I checked out the latest trailer for Tintin to see what I thought. But having read the article about the uncanny valley first, I think that made it harder for me to watch it objectively. It didn’t give me an unpleasant feeling, but that doesn’t mean that watching the movie won’t.

I still plan on seeing the movie though, in the theater if possible (rather than waiting for DVD as I usually do). And if I’m disappointed, I suspect it will be less the “uncanny valley” effect than the fact that no movie can match the magic of a book. Especially not one that is somehow connected with nostalgic half-memories of early childhood.

3 Responses to Uncanny unhumans

  1. Peter L says:

    I at first thought you were referring to the dog Rin-tin-tin. My mistake. But I agree that animated humans are more pleasant than motion capture humans.

  2. Pauline says:

    I’ve never seen Rin-tin-tin. Have I missed something worth looking for?

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