The Uncanny Valley

Have you ever watched a movie with cgi characters resembling humans and for some reason got a feeling of revulsion or uneasiness? What you are experiencing is phenomena which some of us experience and it’s called, The Uncanny Valley.

It’s not possible to imitate a human beings’ function or appearance using cgi or robotics perfectly, but we are getting closer. Until we achieve perfection within our imitation most of us will experience The Uncanny Valley when faced with artificial humans. It’s something we experience when a human being is imitated very closely except for a few telltale signs like lifeless eyes or even movement not ‘moving’ the way we expect it to, telling us this is not a real person. We as humans can pick up these little things because of our daily interaction with each other.

The term “Uncanny Valley” was first used by Masahiro Mori in reverence to robots. He stated, we as humans will have emotions of empathy towards a robot which appearance and function increasingly mimics that of a real human, but as soon as it’s on the cusp of imitating a human perfectly there will be a sudden dip were empathy will become revulsion. As the robot keeps on evolving past the before mentioned ‘cusp’ a person will again start to feel empathy towards it. This dip is the “Valley”.

a Graph showing the Uncanny Valley 'dip'

Although originally used to describe our emotion to humanlike robots, it has now become a phenomenon in movies using cgi to create humans. In movies like Up(2009) and Frozen(2013) the animation don’t aim to be realistic but caricatures of human personalities or certain behavioral traits, and in doing so they never fall into the “Valley”. These films are for children after all(although I do enjoy them way to much) and they wouldn’t benefit in trying to do realistic characters unlike Beowulf(2007) and The Polar Express(2004) who made it their goal to be as realistic as possible. These movies, and many others, have all fallen into the “Valley” and upon release were negatively received due in part to the overall feelings of eerie and revulsion their character’s physical appearance invoked within the viewer. This has been a problem for many movies and the only one that comes to mind that wasn’t to creepy is 2011’s The Adventures of Tintin. The reason it succeeded is, because on top of going for total realism, the character design also seems to rely on making the characters, caricatures and this technique help them to at least jump over the valley.

Repliee Q2. a Very humanlike robot or android

This raises a few questions in art. I see movie making in general as well as special effects and cgi as art and I’m sure many others share my sentiment. So the question is, if we reach “perfect realism” is it still considered art? One of my views on art is that it shouldn’t imitate but rather interpret. Creating realistic human beings using cgi still requires enormous artistic skill but I think we lose something when trying to be too realistic I feel some of the soul, the soul that is absent in the lifeless eyes of some cgi characters, gets lost in translation from real live to cgi, and this is the true reason why we will always feel eerie when seeing cgi humans.

Franscois Potgieter

Founder, Artist, The Mind Is Right

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