The Uncanny Valley: Or when CGI looks uncomfortably real

You’ve probably heard of the “uncanny valley”, that psychological phenomenon where a digitized human is close to appearing human, but not quite there, and as a result they start looking creepy or off-putting to an audience. In 1970 Masahiro Mori coined this phenomenon, noting the resulting perversion people feel when a robot comes close to looking human-like, but it is still distinctly not human. One of the most popular examples of this is from the 2004 Tom Hanks film “The Polar Express” where the first use of motion capture technology in an animated film resulted in unsettling and upsetting visuals to many viewers.

Masahiro Mori’s (1970/2012) uncanny valley

While Mori (1970/2012) originally coined this theory in relation to robots, with the increasing technology associated with animation and the advent of motion capture, the ability for computer-generated imagery (CGI) that can be hyper-realistic has brought the uncanny valley into our movies, tv, and video games. 30 Rock makes reference to this phenomenon and the problems designing realistic video game characters when Frank and Tracy discuss the creation of Tracy’s porn-video game. (Sorry for the terrible video quality)

There are countless examples of this phenomenon in pop culture (A Christmas Carol (2009), TRON: Legacy (2010), The Adventures of Tintin (2011), and many video games), so is it worth it? Well, we’ve come a long way from The Polar Express; with each year motion capture technologies are getting better, and this uncanny valley is getting narrower. So the real question is, will we ever get good enough or are animated humans always going to look a little unsettling?

One prime example of this advancing animation came in December’s Rogue One release, where one major character (and one minor) were stop-motion CGI characters in order to connect the prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) to its successor Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977). Since this doesn’t really spoil anything I will continue to talk about Rogue One, BUT if you are extremely opposed to knowing any details about the film, go watch it, then come back. [Also if you’re passionate about spoiler-culture, check out my article on the science of spoilers HERE]

Since Rogue One immediately precedes A New Hope, the creators decided that to have no overlapping characters (with the exception of Darth Vader – who obviously doesn’t show his age) was unrealistic, and as a result, Grand Moff Tarkin’s plot was built to connect these two films, separated by almost 40 years. However, Peter Cushing, who portrayed Grand Moff Tarkin, was 64 in 1977, and passed away in 1994 (although if he was still living he would have been 103 in 2016). So, in order to include Grand Moff Tarkin into the story, this meant digitally adding a deceased actor into the film. To do this, the team at Industrial Light and Magic used motion capture as well as hiring an actor who both looked and sounded like Peter Cushing (Guy Henry). [The video below explains this process in more detail]

So did it work? Well, it depends on who you talk to. I’ve heard three major comments about this CGI character: 1) It didn’t work at all, you can tell something is wrong and it takes you out of the movie. Plus the technology will date it as 2016 when the movie is watched in the future. 2) It didn’t look perfect, but it looked pretty good, and for the sake of the plot it was a good choice. 3) I couldn’t tell. The 3rd point is kind of incredible and maybe shows how rampant this CGI will be in the next 5 to 10 years. One person I talked to said that they didn’t even think about the character being CGI until they left the movie and realized how old the actor was. The other was stunned to find out that it wasn’t a live actor; after watching the movie TWICE they had assumed the actor was just younger, playing old in 1977, and was extremely elderly in 2016.

Clearly the question of whether or not it worked is subjective, however, the fact that it convinced multiple people and did not remove them from the fiction of the film is a pretty good example that we are close to passing this uncanny valley. I attempted to do some research to find out how different people view this uncanny valley and whether we are close to passing it. However I could not find much, mostly because of how subjective this reaction seems to be. Just like how some people were removed from Rogue One because of these graphics, other people didn’t even notice. A paper entitled “Individual differences predict sensitivity to the uncanny valley” outlines a number of traits (e.g. neuroticism, religion, anxiety, etc.), and how they can influence a viewers’ opinion of this uncanny valley.  While it is clearly subjective, there are more people who are unaffected by these digital effects than ever before, so it’s likely that over the next 10 years the uncanny valley will become narrower and narrower.

*This is a great video that explains how they did the CGI, why, and outlines the potential issues this sort of technology could have in the future (which I agree with!). Obviously includes Rogue One spoilers and all credit goes to the New Rockstars video channel.

In response to Carrie Fisher’s passing, Disney has already announced that they will not digitally add her into any future Star Wars films. So, I think the question of whether we will pass the uncanny valley is clear (we will, and we’re nearly there), but with this ability to digitize deceased actors, or replace actors with a digital counterpart, what are the social implications? Clearly Disney has made a statement at this point that they are only planning to digitize characters when they feel the need to and when permission has been granted by the actor (or the actor’s family), but will we eventually be going to a film starring Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in 2050? I guess we’ll see what the future implications of this technology are, but at least at that point we will no longer be creeped out by the digital renderings of these famous stars from the past.


Uncanny valley image:

Mori, Masahiro, Karl F. MacDorman, and Norri Kageki. “The uncanny valley [from the field].” IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine 19.2 (2012): 98-100.

M. Mori, “The uncanny valley,” Energy, vol. 7, no. 4, pp. 33–35, 1970 (in Japanese).

MacDorman, Karl F., and Steven O. Entezari. “Individual differences predict sensitivity to the uncanny valley.” Interaction Studies 16.2 (2015): 141-172.



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