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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:

Up (2009)

Up (2009)

Wall-E (2008)

Wall-E (2008)

The Incredibles (2004)

The Incredibles (2004)

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.

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. Interesting to read your take on this. I found the CGI characters carefully-designed and, thanks to the mo-cap, seemingly realistic in their ‘stage presence’, but I think they stray into the Valley more than you do.

    In my recent book, ‘The Graphic Mythology of Tintin – a Primer’, I advance an opinion on the new movie in the Epilogue, and point out that many of the characters have too large heads and hands for their frames, and the realistic eyes are sabotaged by too little blinking, especially Tintin himself. These factors alone pushed them into the Uncanny Valley, IMO.

    Ironically, given the opening scene of the movie, Hergé employed caricature in his drawings of faces, but his figures generally keep realistic anatomical dimensions. (I would say this is most true of his later works, with some exceptions in earlier books.) The bloated-headedness of the CGI Thompsons I found the most unexpected and unnecessary, though Nestor was perhaps the most grotesque because of his long features.

    January 5, 2012
  2. O'Hannah #

    I agree! I have seen the film a few times and in the first few minutes I had a few moments of doubt, but then the characters pulled me in. The entire film is beautiful. I wanted to take Tintin home as an adopted brother and make sure he brought Snowy along as well.
    Finally, we have a non-freaky, high quality, realistically animated film.

    January 5, 2012

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