Tintin and the Uncanny Valley
By Taylor Marvin
Kevin Kelly (via Torie Bosch) is excited that the new film The Adventures of Tintin avoids the pitfall of the uncanny valley, or the tendency of almost realistically animated human characters to come off as deeply creepy — or what’s also referred to as the “Polar Express soulless corpse eyes effect”.
“In the first few minutes of the Tin Tin, there is a momentary hesitation when you first see the face of the characters; a feeling they are just a bit shy of something. But that moment passes quickly and thereafter the humans (and animals) seem totally real. Their movements, skin texture, hair, expressions, eyes, everything says they are real — even thought they are only simulations. It helps that the environments are also 100% believable, including the elements of water, weather, atmosphere, sand, and city.”
Dana Stevens at Slate largely agrees, but notes that the more realistically proportioned Tintin “teeters on the brink of that dreaded valley” while the more cartonish characters are more acceptable. Why? Stevens proposes that Tintin’s realisitic character design hurts his acceptability to audiences, suggesting that “realistically proportioned, conventionally ‘attractive’ characters tend to come off worse in digital animation than their more exaggerated comic sidekicks.”
I saw the film last week, and thought it did an amazing job of avoided the lifelessness and repulsion of the uncanny valley: Tintin and the rest of the film’s animated characters are realistically designed, but come off as characters rather than lifeless puppets or caricatures. This is a major technological achievement. Previous computer animated films have been forced to avoid realistic human character design in favor of cartoonish ones, and even the wizards at Pixar have stayed carefully away from realistically animated human characters:
Of course, Pixar creates a fundamentally different type of movie than Tintin, and aims for a much lower level of visual realism. However, Tintin’s realistic character design extends beyond less cartoonishly proportioned character design — The Adventures of Tintin’s characters’ show detailed skin textures and eye designs, two traits that when done wrong are most responsible for the creepiness of the uncanny valley.
Animators depicting non-human characters have had an easier time avoiding the uncanny valley. It’s easy to forget that The Two Towers premiered a decade ago this year: even today, Gollum (played by Andy Serkis, who ably portrays Captain Haddock in Tintin) is expressive and perfectly real.
The Adventures of Tintin is an excellent chase movie, especially in its humor and lovely dedication to the details of its exotic settings. But it’s real impact is perfecting lifelike animation of realistic human characters. Get ready for more.