Tuesday, 19 January 2010

Settling Down in the Uncanny Valley

Unless you’ve been living under a lump of unobtainium, you’ve probably already heard more than you ever wanted to hear about Avatar and its special effects. It’s mesmerizing! It’s revolutionizing the way we look at movies just like Jay Leno failed to revolutionize television! It’s the best technological and most racist thing to happen to cinema since Al Jolson sang about his mammy from Alabammy!

It’s conquered the uncanny valley.

That’s right; everyone, even Frank from 30 Rock, was wrong about this one. The Na’vi were compelling, realistic looking, and kind of sexy at times (none of us are proud by the fact that a series of 0s and 1s on a computer database turned us on, but that’s the truth – oh, the g-strings…). CGI can now tackle humans that look, feel, and act realer than Megan Fox ever did.

But is this the ultimate goal of CGI? One of my friends suggested that CGI will finally reach its consummation when it becomes like set design or sound editing – you don’t notice it (unless it’s bad). Is that all we want? Yes, I realize I don’t really admire sound editing that much, and I only really think of great sets after seeing the movie 4 or 5 times (for example, The Rear Window). However, what about costumes? I agree that sometimes costumes are meant to blend into the scene and not draw attention away from the action. Yet, they also can be the spectacle and their flashiness and costumeness can enhance a scene or an entire movie.

Can this work with CGI though? Can we really appreciate CGI when it stands out from the rest of the film? I think so, particularly in one specific genre: horror. If you look at the diagram of the uncanny
valley on Wikipedia, you’ll notice it isn’t about CGI. It predates that. In the valley are two things of note: corpses and zombies. So, if I’m reading this correctly, George Romero’s creatures are establishing residences in roughly the same latitude and longitude as Ringo Starr in Rockband. Why not make this work for us?

You know what’s still scary? King Kong in the original 1933 film. He walks in a herky-jerky fashion, his fur moves randomly since the animators weren’t all that concerned with the between-shot continuity, and he’s just not of this world. Maybe it’s me talking from a 2010 perspective, but King Kong moves like death – like a relic from the past that has come back to haunt us. Unzombified, he is more of a walking corpse than any horror that Danny Boyle ever filmed. While I can’t speak for the 1933 audience, I would like to think that they were discerning enough to at least realize that there was a barrier between Kong and seeing a realistic looking gorilla on screen.

Why can’t we harness this bringer of fear? You want to know what was one of the most terrifying things I’ve seen recently on screen? I was channel surfing and for some reason that is lost to me, I ended up watching Alvin and the Chipmunks. Yes, the Jason Lee movie. And you wanna know what – it wasn’t terrible. It was kind of fun, in a "cheesy kids' movie" sort of way. However, there is a short moment when Dave opens his dishwasher to find a wet Alvin in it. The CGI was off and the wet chipmunk looked unnatural, disturbing, and made me jump for a moment in my seat. A mistake? Undoubtably. Certainly, this reaction was not the intended one of the film makers. But hasn’t art always been about using accidents and transfiguring the mishap into serendipity? My abjection, my unnerving was there. There’s an easy way to tap into it; this way is far easier and far more guaranteed than billions dollars worth of computer generated blood, monsters, or severed limbs…because they all just look too natural.

I leave you with this thought: think of a zombie chasing a human. Now think of the same human being chased by a zombie…except now the zombie is the festering cadaver of Andy from the first Toy Story. Inhuman, early CGI Andy. Maybe missing an arm or half a skull.

Chilling, isn’t it?


  1. I'm not sure this is something entirely ignored by Hollywood. Always the clever bastards, seems Pixar already hit the nail on the head re: Toy Story with Sid's deformed toy survivors. Uncanny? Yes. Effective? Very yes.

    Counterpoint: I Am Legend zombies. Awful. Awful awful awful. AWFUL! Completely CGI, post-human, and in a thriller/horror flick. But those cancer-cure zombpires failed to chill in any way. Contrast with Regan from The Exorcist or (spoiler)the shape-shifting alien(/spoiler) from The Thing. Or, hell, King Kong, as you noticed. What makes these old fashioned effects so much creepier? They look like real i.e. material entities. I posit CGI needs to be good enough to believe you're looking at a thing that exists before you can freak out because it SHOULDN'T exist.


  2. See, I think even creepier than the deformed toys was Sid himself. Pixar (always about 20 times smarter than the rest of Hollywood, it seems) seemed to show him a lot more than Andy. Since Sid is supposed to be creepy...while Andy isn't. I remember reading that they really limited the amount of Andy in TS1 because of that problem.

    I will admit I haven't seen I am Legend. I sort of hate anything Will Smith post the first Men in Black. Are the zombies supposed to look realistic (albeit post-human) though? Or are they *trying* to be overtly CGI-ish?

    Older effects such as the Thing (which I would argue is more cool than frightening...the terror of that movie comes from the suspicion over who the Thing is) or particularly King Kong or to bring in another example, which alternately horrifies/tickles me (like, it literally changes every other time I watch it), the melting Nazis of Raiders, may look *material* but they don't look real. They are overtly claymationy/stop motiony. Whereas CGI tends to get that rubbery look when it's bad, claymation gets a jerky movement. The recent Fantastic Mr. Fox utlizes it for a quirky/quaint end, but as I've observed with Kong, it can work another way. I don't believe King Kong exists for a second in the 1933 film. He moves too unnaturally and the filming style completely changes whenever he is the focus. Yes, I believe that he exists in so much that there's a little doll in front of the camera that, were I to time travel/break into a case at a film museum, could touch and hold, but that's the extent that the film allows.

    This "bad" CGI/Stop Motion works perhaps as a way of violating the film. Not only is the intact "real" world infiltrated by something that shouldn't exist, but even by something that DOESN'T exist...YET it still is there on camera regardless.

    Have you seen the Korean horror film The Host? One of my friends (after reading this post) brought that up as a possible example of the uncanny valley being scary in and of itself (though the weaker CGI admittedly applies to a monster, not a person).