Interview with Jasmine Becket-Griffith
The Uncanny Valley
Art Supplies for the Part Time Painter
News for November
The Uncanny ValleyWombat Droppings
by Ursula Vernon
So by the time you read this, I will be back from my first visit to Disneyworld.
I've been to Disneyland a number of times, being a child of the West Coast, but Disneyworld's a new one, and it gives me the opportunity to talk about one of my favorite topics.
Say what you will about Disney as a corporation or creative agency -- and I say a lot; I haven't seen one of their non-Pixar movies since "Beauty and the Beast," I generally despise the core group of Disney characters, and Mickey's voice gives me the screaming heebie-jeebies -- they know their way around the uncanny valley.
The uncanny valley, if you haven't run across this insanely useful concept before, was proposed by a Japanese roboticist and is definitely worth reading. The quick notes version is that people like things that remind them of people. We tend to feel more positive about stuff that looks more human. People are scared of crocodiles, but the bipedal, grinning, more human-eyed crocs in Fantasia are fun. We are generally pretty ambivalent of toast, but we feel for the Brave Little Toaster.
This expresses itself a lot in art -- anthropomorphism makes people like stuff. We like bunnies, we love Peter Rabbit with his little coat, Toad with his motor car, Winnie the Pooh with his red shirt, etc. (Say what you will, Disney's REALLY good at this, Mickey's voice not withstanding.) The extreme end of this is furry art, of course, but to a certain extent, it's also true of all cartoons -- we feel positive about this group of lines because it's a group of lines that looks like people. And the more expressive and human the lines look, the more we like 'em!
... Up to a point.
If you imagine a graph, with "Human" at the far right, the line of People Liking Stuff goes up steadily as it approaches that quality of humanness. The more human, the more positive the reaction. And this is true right up to the point where some invisible thing in our brain switches, and suddenly we go from "thing that looks like human" to "human that doesn't look right" and that line suddenly plunges into the negative. Suddenly we're not talking happy crocodiles and talking toasters, we're talking sideshow freaks and zombies and corpses and those horrible marionettes and clowns and too-realistic dolls. It is a Bad Place on the graph, and you don't get out of it until you get to normal looking humans again, which we really like.
This sudden drop is called the "uncanny valley."
The reasons for the uncanny valley are pretty interesting and probably hardwired evolutionarily, but for our purposes, the point is that people like stuff that looks like humans and hate stuff that doesn't look quite human ENOUGH.
Artistically, this is really useful stuff. You can manipulate all sides of it, from making inanimate things just slightly anthropomorphic (and thus positive) to making humans just slightly off (and thus creepy as sin.) Definitely worth contemplating and toying with and so forth.
It's not in the same place for all people, let's be clear -- I think Anne Geddes's work is smack dab in the middle of the uncanny valley, half her babies look dead and stuffed in flowerpots to me and I want to run screaming, but obviously it works for a LOT of people. The shades in furry art alone are fascinating and in odd places -- take a look sometimes at how few have human-style hands, and it's not just ‘cos they're hard to draw. My mother loved the movie "Polar Express;" I would have fewer nightmares walking through an abattoir.
And Disney takes on one of the very hardest areas -- animatronics -- and they've gotten damn good at it.
There's more animatronic people per square foot in the Happiest Place on Earth than probably anywhere else, but we generally don't call it the Mouse's House of a Thousand Soulless Terrors, and small children seem to enjoy it. I may never forgive them for "Hunchback of Notre Dame," but I can give credit where it's due -- they do REALLY good work on keeping animatronics out of the uncanny valley.
At least on the newer stuff. Some of the old are occasionally a little creepy, and mostly they fall on the far side, since they don't move quite right. I'm avoiding Small World like the plague, but the new Pirates of the Caribbean ride, while it might as well have been called the All Jack Sparrow, All The Time ride -- well, he was in every damn scene, but he didn't look bad in it. Skin a little odd around the eyes, lips don't work quite right -- lips are diabolically hard, I'm guessing -- but not creepy.
And in the Indiana Jones temple thing, at one point they have an animatronic Indiana Jones climb down on a rope from the ceiling, and I nearly jumped out of my skin, because my brain read it as "Crap! Guy dangling on a rope!" for a few seconds before I realized it was nothing of the sort. But they actually fooled the ol' hindbrain on that one, and that's a heckuva trick.
If I had their budget, maybe I could do it too. But I doubt it. I'm not that kinda artist. And while I may disagree with all kinds of things on their corporate side, while I secretly suspect that I will end my life at the hands of a chainsaw wielding maniac who sounds exactly like Mickey Mouse, I will take my hat off to Disney for this -- that takes artistry and craftsmanship both, and I don't know of anybody who does it better.
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