kottke.org posts about Uncanny Valley

Beyond the uncanny valleyJan 04 2012

Kevin Kelly argues that Spielberg's Tintin movie passes beyond the uncanny valley into the "plains of hyperreality".

One of the great charms of the Tin Tin movie (besides its solid story, and uplifting sensibility) is the incredible degree of detail, texture, lighting, and drama that infuses every scene. Because the whole movie is synthetic, every scene can be composed perfectly, lit perfectly, arranged perfectly, and captured perfectly. There is a painterly perfection that the original Tin Tin comics had that this movie captures. This means that the stupendous detail found in say TinTin's room, or in a back alley, or on the ship's deck can be highlighted beyond what it could in reality. You SEE EVERYTHING. When TinTin's motorcycle is chasing the bad guy and begins to fall apart, nothing is obscured. Every realistic mechanical part is illuminated realistically. This technique gives a heightened sense of reality because every corner of the entire scene is heightened realistically, which cannot happen in real life, yet you only see real-looking things. This trick lends the movie a hyperreality. Its artificial world looks realer than real.

The uncanny valley issue has been less noticeable lately, but what really snaps me out of being immersed in movies lately is the Impossible Camera™. In 100% CGI shots, when cameras move quickly with sharp changes in direction over long distances, something that actual cameras can't do, it snaps me right out of the action because it's so obviously fake. For instance, any scene in the Tobey Maguire Spider-Man movies where Spidey is flying through Manhattan. Fay, fay, fake.

Uncanny babiesJul 06 2009

The only thing creepier and more irritating than those E*TRADE babies are these Evian rollerskating babies. (thx, bb)

Errol Morris on art forgeriesMay 28 2009

Errol Morris posted the first part of a seven-part series of posts about Han van Meegeren, art forger extraordinaire.

To be sure, the Van Meegeren story raises many, many questions. Among them: what makes a work of art great? Is it the signature of (or attribution to) an acknowledged master? Is it just a name? Or is it a name implying a provenance? With a photograph we may be interested in the photographer but also in what the photograph is of. With a painting this is often turned around, we may be interested in what the painting is of, but we are primarily interested in the question: who made it? Who held a brush to canvas and painted it? Whether it is the work of an acclaimed master like Vermeer or a duplicitous forger like Van Meegeren -- we want to know more.

Morris ends the post with a cliffhanger that, if I didn't know any better, was written specifically for me: "The Uncanny Valley."

Update: Part two has been posted.

Smokey the Bear is backJun 03 2008

Smokey the Bear is back! And he's preventing forest fires in Uncanny Valley State Park!

Approaching the uncanny valley from the other directionMay 13 2008

Fashion photo retouching (i.e. high-brow Photoshopping) gets the New Yorker treatment with this story on retoucher Pascal Dangin, one of the best in the business.

In the March issue of Vogue Dangin tweaked a hundred and forty-four images: a hundred and seven advertisements (Estée Lauder, Gucci, Dior, etc.), thirty-six fashion pictures, and the cover, featuring Drew Barrymore. To keep track of his clients, he assigns three-letter rubrics, like airport codes. Click on the current-jobs menu on his computer: AFR (Air France), AMX (American Express), BAL (Balenciaga), DSN (Disney), LUV (Louis Vuitton), TFY (Tiffany & Co.), VIC (Victoria's Secret).

The article touches too briefly on the tension between reality and what ends up in the magazines and advertisements. As Errol Morris points out on his photography blog, it is often difficult to find truth in even the most vérité of photographs. Even so, the truth seems to be completely absent from Madonna's recent photo spread in Vanity Fair that was retouched by Dangin, especially this one in which a 50-year-old Madonna looks like a recent college graduate who's never lifted a weight in her life.

The uncanny valley comes into play here, which we usually think of in terms of robots, cartoon characters, and other pseudo anthropomorphic characters attempting and failing to look sufficiently human and therefore appearing creepy and scary. With an increasing amount of photo retouching, postproduction in film, plastic surgery, and increasingly effective makeup & skin care products, we're being bombarded with a growing amount of imagery featuring people who don't appear naturally human. People who appear often in media (film & tv stars, models, cable news anchors & reporters, miscellaneous celebrities, etc.) are creeping down into the uncanny valley to meet up with characters from The Polar Express. I don't know about you but a middle-aged Madonna made to look 24 gives me the heebie-jeebies. Perhaps the familar uncanny valley graph needs revision:

New Uncanny Valley

How uncanny is her valley? Very. NeverMar 28 2008

How uncanny is her valley? Very. Never has one of those Flash move-your-mouse-around applets been this creepy.

David Gallagher dings Beowulf for using digitalNov 15 2007

David Gallagher dings Beowulf for using digital actors, resulting in an uncanny valley problem for the movie.

It's impossible to watch "Beowulf" without sensing that the "actors" are being pushed around by invisible forces, not living and breathing on their own.

I noticed the same thing when I saw the trailer in the theater a few weeks ago. I'm stunned that the filmmakers thought it was OK that the whole thing seems soulless and constantly reminds people that, hey, this is fake, you're watching a movie! It's a real testament to Pixar that they're able to stop short of the uncanny valley (they're still obviously cartoons) and still imbue their characters with life and emotion (see Anton Ego's revelation in Ratatouille).

Update: I forgot that Zemeckis and company did the creepy Polar Express as well.

Uncanny Valley, CAMay 19 2006

S-s-s-omething from the inbox. Paul writes regarding the uncanny valley:

Given your recent link re: the uncanny valley, I thought this article about Sun-Maid's redesigned icon would be worth your time. Photo.

Clearly, she's selling grapes from a certain valley. Creeeepy.

I love the idea of Uncanny Valley being an actual geographical location (situated in California, I would assume) inhabited by creepy video game characters, digitized actors, and retooled advertising icons.

Uncanny Valley, CA

Imagine the views from neighboring hillsides! (Image courtesy of Google Earth.)

Clive Thompson reports on the renewed interestMay 18 2006

Clive Thompson reports on the renewed interest in making photorealistic humans in games for the new consoles (Xbox360, PS3, Wii) and in the process venturing ever deeper into the Uncanny Valley.

The Economist asks "will computer-animated humans everDec 09 2005

The Economist asks "will computer-animated humans ever look realistic on screen?" but with nary a mention of the uncanny valley.

With the release of Xbox 360, game designersDec 06 2005

With the release of Xbox 360, game designers are bumping up against the uncanny valley problem, where in-game avatars are looking a bit too real for comfort. "When it first lurched out of the mysterious tropical cave and fixed its cadaverous eyes on me, I could barely look at the monstrosity. I'm speaking, of course, of Naomi Watts."

Tags related to Uncanny Valley:
uncanny valley movies video games games xbox360 advertising

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