January 22, 2012

The Uncanny Valley

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When you’re as cool as I am, you don’t spend your precious winter break evenings out partying; you spend them sitting on your couch watching the Doctor Who Christmas Specials. As someone enamored with the British Sci-Fi television show that has been on the air since 1963, I was the first in line to see The Adventures of Tin Tin, which was written by Steven Moffat, the current head writer and executive producer of Doctor Who. Moffat co-wrote the screenplay with comedic geniuses Edgar Write and Joe Cornish (Shawn of the Dead and Hot Fuzz).

If I had watched The Adventures of Tin Tin with my eyes closed, I would have thought that the movie was charming, funny and a generally perfect holiday family movie. Moffat, Wright and Cornish did their job well; the problem with the movie was that my eyes were not closed and I was forced to sit for two hours watching a world that closely resembles ours, but just doesn’t.

When I think about how far animation technology has come in my lifetime, I am amazed. The scenes in Tin Tin that take place in the grimy London/Paris/some-European-city streets looked like they could have been taken from the new Sherlock Holmes and the waterfront scenes from a documentary about the ocean on National Geographic. The scenery and attention to detail in the film was wonderful, but at the same time it made me wonder: why? What is the point of laboring to digitally create a world that looks so like ours, but just doesn’t look quite right?

It almost seemed as though the filmmakers were showing off that they had the ability to create a universe so much like our own. The aspect of Tin Tin that chiefly drove my two-hour headache was that the people still looked like cartoons. These caricatures of humans walking and interacting with a world just annoyed me. After doing some more research, I discovered that my annoyance could be legitimized by the theory of the Uncanny Valley.

The Uncanny Valley supposes that when humans are faced with a visual representation of our world that is extremely close, but not quite perfect, we are immediately repulsed. Fans of 30 Rock will recognize the term from the 2008 episode in which Frank uses it to explain to Tracy why it would be impossible to create a pornographic video game.

Fortunately for Tracy, this does not stop him from succeeding and profiting enormously from the idea. Unfortunately for the creators of the film Polar Express, the Uncanny Valley caused many reviewers to strongly dislike the film. As CNN reviewer Paul Clinton said about the movie, “those human characters in the film come across as downright … well, creepy.”

Despite the generally negative feedback that is given to films like Polar Express, Green Lantern and Avatar: the Last Airbender, studios continue to release sickeningly realistic animated movies, or ones that are so CGI-ed, that they may as well be animated (I’ve the same problem with 3D movies).

But negative feedback has never held movie studios back. And that to me is the crux of the issue in the movie business: once you have paid your 10 dollars to the freckly teenager working at Regal Cinemas, they couldn’t care less if you actually liked it.

What really baffles me about movies like Tin Tin, is  that they are much more expensive to make than The Sitter (a truly awful film featuring a pre-weight loss Jonah Hill giving cocaine to children. While Tin Tin cost $135 million to produce, The Sitter’s budget was a mere $25 million.

I would like to make it clear that Tin Tin was not a bad movie. I guess I just wish that sometimes the movie studios would stop showing off so much, and just focus on what really matters: the story. I would hope that occasionally, they would not necessarily create an artificial Sahara desert (which they did in Tin Tin) just because they can, when we have a perfectly fine Sahara desert already.

Original Author: Julia Moser