Errant Thoughts – The Nonexistent Uncanny Valley and (Fantastical) Photorealism

This is the first post in a new segment on the blog which will mainly feature my opinions on various things, most likely entertainment related. Though I still plan to do an extensive defense of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy sometime in the near future, the subject of this post is tangentially related and has been simmering in the back of my mind for some time.
Having recently seen The Jungle Book, now seems as good a time as any to discuss the wonders of CGI (computer generated imagery also sometimes referred to as CG) and, perhaps more importantly, how audiences react to computer generated characters. Many times I feel that there is a distinct disconnect between me and the general populace when it comes to films that feature a lot of special effects. This is neither a good or bad thing, just a conclusion I’ve drawn from discussing feelings about recent films with people I know in real life, on the internet, and the aggregate “reaction” represented by sites like Rotten Tomatoes. Spectacle is about to become the name of the game once more as we move into the summer months, where the budgets of films expand along with the amount of fantastical, impossible special effects shots. I am not writing this in defense of straight eye-candy; explosions with no emotion don’t do anything for me. I do love when spectacle combines with character and offers something impossible and stimulating. However, it seems there exists an odd sort of double standard when it comes to computer generated characters and which ones critics and the general audience accept and champion.

Baloo

Baloo (Bill Murray) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi) from The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

The most recent film I can site is Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book. Favreau is a wonderful director with a keen sense for character and well-paced storytelling – just look at Iron Man; that’s a ridiculously tight film. He used these skills to create a fun adventure film in The Jungle Book, one that sits comfortably among other recent profitable, nostalgia-inducing remakes such as Maleficent and Cinderella. Much of the film’s success can be contributed to Justin Marks’ imaginative script, which distilled the rambling fever dream of the original animated film into something resembling a coherent story. However, beyond the creative leadership of this project, it is the artistic team responsible for creating an entire digital world and cast of speaking animal characters that deserves the most credit for the film’s success. Aside from the main child actor, not a single character in the film is real, but rather a digital creation, painstakingly rendered using a number of impressive techniques.

Bagheera

Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and Mowgli (Neel Sethi). Property of Disney.

Many critics as well as members of the general audience have praised The Jungle Book for its “photorealistic” animal characters. The same sentiment was shared for the remarkable ape characters presented in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Both of these films set a high bar for effects work and are artistic triumphs.

Koba

Koba (Toby Kebbell) in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. Property of 20th Century Fox.

And I agree, but there seems to be no such love (at least in the last five or so years) for creations that are not digital analogues of real world animals. What do I mean?

One of the main criticisms of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy was that it used too much CGI, abandoning the practical effects work that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy so aesthetically pleasing. I think this is an unfair comparison given that the breadth and scope of spectacle presented in LotR was only possible because of the amount of CGI used; however, I understand that the argument is presented mainly on the basis of the appearance of certain characters rather than the presentation of large armies of creatures, landscapes, etc. True, there is no reason they could not have used practical effects to render minor, minion characters such as the goblins in the Goblin Tunnels, etc., but it is the mixed-to-negative reaction to important CG characters that I do not understand.

It is here that we have reached my disconnect.

Azog 6

Azog the Defiler (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

Azog the Defiler, the main antagonist of The Hobbit trilogy is a triumph of both performance and technology. Motion-captured from the performance of actor, Manu Bennett (of Spartacus and Arrow fame), Azog – an eight-foot tall, white orc – is expressive, moves in a realistic, dynamic manner, and most importantly, possesses a startling amount of visual detail. Pores show on his face, muscles shift and move beneath his skin, sweat glistens upon him as he fights, and his eyes burn with emotion and realistic movement.

A similar quality was attained on the villain Doomsday in the recent superhero film, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. A sore spot for many, Doomsday was criticized from the day he first appeared in the second trailer released for the film.

Doomsday

Doomsday in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice. Property of Warner Bros.

Though he does not possess the most memorable character design (in this film or in the comics), he is still no doubt an impressive feat of digital sorcery. Like Azog, he is rendered with surprising clarity; veins stand against his skin, reflective spittle drools from his bared gums, and his eyes track as you would expect them to. As he takes damage, he tears away a semi-transparent outer layer of membranous skin as textured crystals spring from the flesh beneath to take their place.

Another recent example that springs to mind is Warcraft – a film that’s not even out yet – based upon the lore presented in the series of video games by Blizzard Entertainment. The CGI in the trailers is some of the best fantastical CGI I’ve ever seen; faithfully rendering a world in which I spent a ton of time in my years playing World of Warcraft. Yet looking at the comments, it doesn’t take long to see numerous posts complaining about the appearance of the characters belonging to the orcish race: seven-foot giants with tusks, ham hock fists, tree trunk legs, and skin tones that range from green and yellow to dark brown.

Durotan 2

Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Why do so many people dislike Azog and flat-out hate Doomsday? Why are so many already willing to dismiss Warcraft? It’s a strange phenomenon and I’m not here to say that anyone is wrong if they feel like CGI detracts from a film, I’m just curious why The Jungle Book has characters that are lauded, while equally impressive characters such as Azog the Defiler and Doomsday are met with an ambivalent shrug. I have pondered this ever since the release of The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. I think I have come to a possible reason and I believe it has to do with the “Uncanny Valley.”

Coined by Japanese Engineer, Dr. Masahiro Mori in 1970 in relation to the development of advanced robotics, the Uncanny Valley is the hypothesis in aesthetics that states, “as [a simulated form] became more human-like there would first be an increase in its acceptability and then as it approached a nearly human state there would be a dramatic decrease in acceptance,” (Pollick, 2).

Uncanny Valley

A graph explaining the Uncanny Valley by Matthew Trump.

If we remove that definition from robotics and apply it to the strides made in animation, specifically character animation, the effect is clear. An oft-used example of the Uncanny Valley is 2004’s The Polar Express. Though digital technology allowed for Tom Hanks to play multiple characters (including a child), the glassy-eyed, rubber-skinned nature of the characters unsettle many audience members.

Polar Express

Hero Boy (Tom Hanks) and Conductor (Tom Hanks) in The Polar Express. Property of Warner Bros.

The feeling of revulsion or wrongness comes from the disconnect of seeing something that’s obviously fake masquerading as something real. However, I feel as if the disconnect with a lot of viewers when it comes to fantastical creatures like Azog or Doomsday exists for the exact opposite reason. It is not because they exist within the Uncanny Valley; for them there is no Uncanny Valley.

Azog and Doomsday are humanoid in shape, but they are not approximations of something for which we have real-world examples, unlike the animal characters depicted in The Jungle Book. Shere Khan is an incredibly impressive effect, but the audience knows and can approximate what a tiger would look and move like.

Shere Khan

Shere Khan (Idris Elba) in The Jungle Book. Property of Disney.

An eight-foot tall orc has no real world analogue to anchor expectation, leading to a quick judgment that “it looks fake” or “it’s unrealistic.” Both are valid points. Both could be said for the characters in The Jungle Book. I loved the character designs in that film, but at no point did I think that Bagheera and Shere Kahn were photorealistic. They were clearly not real and perhaps that’s where I diverge from many people.

None of it is real. It’s a film.

Escapism, for me, is formed by the entire experience. All film is artifice; CGI is simply a tool to help enhance the illusion of reality. Some effects are better than others, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a film completely broken by poor or aging CGI. It’s the reason why we still like The Matrix and are willing to sit through Terminator 2: Judgment Day every time it’s on TV; why we ignore the odd, character jerkiness and transitions of the Sam Raimi Spider-Man; why many maintain that the podrace is one of the few good parts about The Phantom Menace.

Durotan 1

Durotan (Toby Kebbell) in the upcoming Warcraft. Property of Universal Pictures.

Do the orcs in Warcraft look real? Of course not, but they look like realistic versions of the orcs in World of Warcraft and that’s all I’ve ever wanted from them. The same can be said of Azog and Doomsday. They are skillful approximations of the impossible and the fact that they exist in any capacity, at the quality at which they do, is incredible and indicative of how far computer technology has come since the early 90s.

I believe the reason why this post even exists is because as an audience we’ve been spoiled by spectacle, especially in the last five years. There are so many films with so much CGI that people have become inured to the incredible and that’s sad given the ridiculous amount of resources and artistry poured into every one of these characters. It becomes a question of how can the fantastic be depicted without CGI and if that’s possible, would you even want it to? Marvel’s big bad Thanos should be exactly that: big, beyond any possible humanoid stature and able to move with a swiftness that belies his size.

Thanos

Thanos (Josh Brolin) in the post-credits teaser at the end of The Avengers: Age of Ultron. Property of Disney.

Returning to the character of Azog, many state that he should have been an actor in makeup and prosthetics (which he originally was) like the character of Lurtz in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; but could an actor emote enough, express enough through the makeup to make you believe that it was real?

Lurtz

Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) in The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Lurtz only had to sneer and roar.

Lurtz 1

Another shot of Lurtz (Lawrence Makoare) from the Extended Edition of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Property of New Line Cinema.

Could he have smiled like Azog, looked confused, looked triumphant? I find that doubtful.

Azog 4

A stern Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

Azog 1

A confused Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

Azog 3

A triumphant Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. Property of Warner Bros.

Are there exceptions to the examples I’ve stated above? Of course. People loved Gollum from The Lord of the Rings when those films were first released, but I suspect that the reason had much to do with the novelty of the first fully-realized CGI character and Andy Serkis’ career-defining performance. Avatar as well is an exception and a big one at that – it’s still the highest-grossing film ever. However, I think a lot of that has to do with the immersive nature of the spectacle presented. James Cameron and co. gave us an entire world that was aesthetically consistent save for the practical sets and human characters. Since the interaction between the humans and the Na’vi is so limited, it’s easier to maintain the illusion, though the majority of Avatar is basically a high-budget an animated film. Smaug the dragon, a large part of the latter two films in The Hobbit trilogy seems immune to criticism on his appearance mainly because dragons are so prevalent in popular culture, lending the real-world anchor necessary to put people at ease with how he looks and moves (the sultry baritone of Benedict Cumberbatch may have helped as well).

Azog 5

Azog (Manu Bennett) in The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey. Property of Warner Bros.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that orcs don’t look real because they aren’t real. The same can be said for Azog and Doomsday. I’ve tried to move beyond being overly critical about CGI and have tried to accept the experience presented by the filmmakers, tried to immerse myself in the story and characters presented and judge films based upon those merits rather than if the CGI characters meet some nonexistent standard. Do I still see some effects shots that bother me? Of course, but if the rest of the film is awesome, then it’s really not that important. Case in point: even though the animals in The Jungle Book didn’t look completely real to me, the story and the performances were enough to reel me in and keep me entertained. So I would urge everyone to try and walk into every film with a more open, less critical mindset when it comes to CGI characters. Try to believe in the impossible for two hours at a time.

Do this and you might just leave the theater a happier person.

Bibliography: Pollick, Frank E. “In Search of the Uncanny Valley.” (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 3 May 2016.

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