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November 10, 2004

The Uncanny Valley, or why POLAR EXPRESS is so creepy

pe1The holiday movie race is ON! with THE INCREDIBLES opening last Friday and THE POLAR EXPRESS opening today. Both are CGI films supposedly aimed at the kiddlies. But one is a marvelous romp, the other, frankly, scares the shit out of The Beat. While the POLAR EXPRESS trailer is supposed to fill tots with joyful feelings of glee and awe and meeting Santa, the actual result of these not-quite-humans is more likely to be a deep sense of insecurity and fear. Take it from The Beat : the beds of American children are going to be soaked with anxiety pee after watching a creepy digital Tom Hanks shout "All aboard!!!" and wave his arms for a couple of hours. (The film was made with extensive mocap technology...essentially Gollum gone horribly wrong.)

Why is this? Well, it turns out there's a whole theory to explain the effect of not-quite-humans on quite human psyches. It's called "The Uncanny Valley" theory:

Japanese roboticist Doctor Masahiro Mori is not exactly a household name — but, for the speculative fiction community at least, he could prove to be an important one. The reason why can be summed up in a simple, strangely elegant phrase that translates into English as “the uncanny valley”.
Though originally intended to provide an insight into human psychological reaction to robotic design, the concept expressed by this phrase is equally applicable to interactions with nearly any nonhuman entity. Stated simply, the idea is that if one were to plot emotional response against similarity to human appearance and movement, the curve is not a sure, steady upward trend. Instead, there is a peak shortly before one reaches a completely human “look” . . . but then a deep chasm plunges below neutrality into a strongly negative response before rebounding to a second peak where resemblance to humanity is complete.

pe3Blogger Robot Johnny explores this a bit vis a vis THE INCREDIBLES (and provides the chart which The Beat has stolen). Musician Momus has also written a fascinating look at the phenomenon in terms of Pixar and robots and so on. Well worth a click.

Anyway, without getting too deep, this explains why you want to give Ichabod Crane, Bob Parr and C-3PO a hug, but when you see THE POLAR EXPRESS coming at you, you just want to run away screaming. The Beat wants nothing to do with these children of the digital damned! This is supposed to be lovable? They should have just given in and made a movie called "Nyarlathotep, The Crawling Horror"starring Tom Hanks instead.


Posted by THE BEAT at November 10, 2004 12:25 PM



Have you seen Polar Express? Your post wasn't clear on that point, but you only mentioned the trailer. If you have, then of course you have your opinion, which is shared with many. If not, then you might need to take a step back and re-think your position. Take a fair look at the movie, then voice an opinion. I've talked to many people who have seen the film and enjoyed it, as I did.

Posted by: Kenn at November 10, 2004 12:54 PM

i attribute the "creepiness" less to the Uncanny Valley and more to dedication the producers apparently had in staying true to the Van Allburg paintings that constitute the original book.

Chris Van Allsburg is far and away my favorite picture book author/artist. He's Twilight Zone for kids.

Posted by: Skipper Pickle at November 10, 2004 01:46 PM

I agree with Skip, the movie looks like the book - don't knock the producers for their attempt to honor the author.

Posted by: Donnie Jeter at November 10, 2004 03:04 PM

Why is it that every week or so "The Uncanny Valley" is the subject du jour of everyone's blog? Completely inapplicable here. These animations do not carry the "animated corpse" effect as it was so brilliantly described in a Wired article a few months back. They are a direct reflection of the original art contained in the book.

Pardon me if I find this entry to be just an opportunity to sound haute couture by using "the uncanny valley" in an entry.

Posted by: Matt at November 10, 2004 03:13 PM

I think the Uncanny Valley applies here--both to the movie and to the original book, which I think was just a little creepy. Great story, though.

Posted by: K Welch at November 10, 2004 03:18 PM

Nail on the head baby, those fuckers are more creepy than the guy who hung around the playground when we were nippers, offering to show us the puppies in the back of his van.

In other news, some people take stuff really REALLY seriosuly, don't they?

Posted by: Paul Black is rated "Scene out of Ten" at November 10, 2004 04:00 PM

Come on now! Bloggers like THE UNCANNY VALLEY becuase it sounds weirder than "symbollic representations dip".

I haven't seen POLAR EXPRESS in its entirety, only the creepy trailer. But I've deciede I'm going to go see it in Imax for full on horror effect!

Posted by: Heidi M. at November 10, 2004 04:01 PM

Mo-Cap technology is technology designed for videogames, to help speed along the process of walk, run, jump, etc cycles. It has become popular for use in movies basically because it lets actors think they have a hand in the performance of the characters (which, other than their voical performances, they really don't), and because the general public is too stupid to understand the way animation actually works. "Computers do it" is much easier to hype the films than to explain what actually happens. Its incredibly complicated and it takes a LONG time and talented animators to make a movie. Motion capture alone isn't even good enough for videogames. Gollum was not motion capture alone. It was motion capture that was then taken by animators and refined and re-done until it looked good. The actor was there to block out the motion and place the character accurately on the digital set that had to match up to the live action, and also to give the actors in the film someone to react to. Polar Express is trying to put across an impression that motion capture technology has advanced so far that soon we won't need either animators OR real live actors, All we need is people in spandex with golf balls on them and we can make them look however we want and completely real. That may indeed happen one day, but it certainly hasn't happened yet, and Polar Express is the painful proof of that fact. Animators did do some limited tweaking and finessing of the motion on this movie too, but of course that's boring and cofusing to the idiot public, its better to just say that Tom hanks did it all. It may be a decent story, but it can't overcome how incredibly AWFUL it looks. I sincerely hope this film fails miserably and gets this whole super-mo-cap idea out of the heads of hollywood execs as a marketing-point for animated films, because it really does suck quite intensely.

Posted by: GCoyote at November 10, 2004 04:37 PM

Imax is the way to go. The full on horror effect you anticipate aside, there are some amazing effects and action sequences in the film that look very cool in Imax 3d.

Posted by: Kenn at November 10, 2004 05:18 PM

For a long time now this movie has been referred to as "Zombie Express" amongst my professional 3D animator friends.

Posted by: bruce at November 10, 2004 05:36 PM

Mocap blew five years ago. It continues to blow now. At least as a one-stop solution. It's far better, as GCoyote points out above, to deal with rough blocking and serve as a template for animation to work with.

But what I've seen of POLAR EXPRESS, the mocap isn't the problem. Its the faces, particularly the shading (though the animation is still a little spooky.) Photoreal CG people are a bad idea. We've had literally lifetimes to get used to how people work and move, particularly faces. Trying to replicate that with humans in the computer is an uphill struggle at best. Far better that designers work up a stylized human form if you're wanting suspension of disbelief.

That or just hire actors and greenscreen 'em in, but that has its own set of pitfalls that must be overcome as well.

Posted by: Matt M. at November 10, 2004 06:02 PM

The children in the Van Allsburg paintings look like children. Not like the souless undead in the movie. While the animators certainly kept the color palette and light sources, the people in the preview don't display any emotion to me while the characters in the book seem to move off the page with emotion.

Posted by: Karon at November 10, 2004 09:27 PM

It IS creepy-looking... the people anyway. I thought so from the get-go. The original book is truly beautiful and will always be a classic, but something about the movie characters makes me want to look AWAY.


Posted by: Trish Mulvihill at November 10, 2004 10:44 PM

I'm telling you, the trailer freaked me out. I'm pretty sure most kids are gonna freak when they see this movie. Unless, of course, they are too busy being mesmerized by commercial-holiday-cheer. Christmas is too commercial these days, not that I care, because I don't celebrate Christmas. I mean, I only like it because of the days we have off from school.

Posted by: Shahid at November 10, 2004 11:33 PM

It kind of reminds me, the pictures anyways, of Richard Corben's art. And while I like how they look, but moreso because it is very creepy and disturbing.

I'm definitely curious to go see The Polar Express now. And I personally hate Christmas and it's commercial ways now as well.

Posted by: J Woloshin at November 11, 2004 01:08 AM

I've actually read a few accounts of kids LIKING this movie. Maye they are evolutionariy adapted to skim over the Uncanny Valley...but I still think it will do PERMANENT DAMAGE.

Posted by: Heidi M. at November 11, 2004 01:55 AM

And the valley exists not just with facial features, but movement as well. In the trailers, the "look" of the characters is creepy, but so is the way they move, and movement is something that you can blame totally on the producers and not on their attempt to stay true to the "look" of the book. The sequence where the train waiters are doing backflips off of the walls looks really unconvincing, physics-wise.

Posted by: barlow at November 11, 2004 01:56 AM

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