A few years ago, Charlie Kaufman (“Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”) and Duke Johnson (“Community”) made the stop-motion animation film “Anomalisa” with eerily realistic puppets. I watched the first 15 minutes with my mom last summer before a rather explicit sex scene started and I quickly changed the channel. “That’s why I recognized it!” my mom yelled and shuddered. When the film was first released, she and a friend went to the theater to see it under the impression of watching a funny animated movie — more along the lines of Disney’s “Big Hero 6” than Seth Rogen’s “Sausage Party.” I remember her friend laughing and telling the story at a Christmas party, acting out how my mom covered her face with her jacket and eventually ran out of the theater. Sure, it’s weird watching puppets having sex, but her reaction had more to do with the phenomenon called “Uncanny Valley.”
Kaufman and Johnson were warned “Anomalisa” would creep out audiences since the puppets were 3D printed and highly photorealistic, the equivalent of a painting by Richard Estes. In an interview with the Los Angeles Times, Johnson explained their reasoning for this hyper-realistic style:
“The challenge we felt with so much animated stuff is that you’re always conscious of the animation, and we kept asking, ‘What if we could escape that? What would it be like?’” In other words, these filmmakers steered into the skid, embracing the disturbing nature of Uncanny Valley, a theory that Stamps Associate Professor Heidi Kumao describes as “the aesthetics of a human look-alike.” As Kumao wrote in an email interview with The Daily, “We are fine with (and have empathy for) objects that have human features, but are recognizably different from us. When the look-alike appears to resemble a human being too closely, however, we become uneasy. An eerie sensation is triggered. We are naturally repulsed by objects that are so realistic that we almost mistake them for a real person.”
Technological advancements in the medium of animation drive the competition between large companies like Pixar, Disney and video game corporations to achieve ultimate realism. According to Professor Kumao, “realism is their currency. It is how these types of movies sell themselves: They try to outdo each other with technical wizardry. As they strive to reach this technical goal, the goalposts keep moving.”
In addition, the fervor around virtual reality and augmented reality has turned animators into cowboys in the Wild West as they discover how to make animation interactive and visualize 360 degree environments. As a result, cutting-edge technology has forever altered the process of animation. Take “Anomalisa,” for instance, which used 18 different 3D-printed versions of the main character, Michael Stone, so the animators could change expressions and physical gestures with extreme precision. However, as Kumao wrote, this scramble for realism is a “technical task that leaves nothing to the viewer’s imagination.”
Although brand new technology like VR and 3D printing are incredibly expensive, access to basic, affordable equipment has also altered the independent animation scene. Since the creation of YouTube in 2005, several animation artists have established themselves as popular channels. “How it Should Have Ended,” “Happy Tree Friends,” “Cyanide and Happiness” and many more all benefited from the affordability and easy access to animation technology as well as the rise of social media. No longer do studios have a monopoly on the art form, as individual artists and anyone with a computer can create their own material. For these low-budget YouTube channels, there is no race for realism. The same goes for many animated television series that produce over a dozen episodes each season. While the old “Tom and Jerry” cartoons and the new episodes from the reboot noticeably differ in style, the series has stuck to 2D animation and less-realistic avatars as have other cartoon staples like “The Simpsons.” However, Hollywood productions and some independent films have larger staffs, more money, more time and a desire for realism, which can lead to some ethical problems.
After the tragic death of actor Paul Walker during the shooting of “Furious 7,” the studio used his brother as a body double and computer-generated images of the deceased Walker to finish the film. Some people congratulated Weta Digital for preserving Walker’s legacy, while others felt queasy watching this digital rendering of the actor. The latter not only questioned the ethical legitimacy of the quasi-real CGI, but also felt the images fell irretrievably deep into the Uncanny Valley. Since “Furious 7,” other big franchise films have used computer-generated clips of actors. For example, in “Rogue One,” audiences did a double take at the animation of Grand Moff Tarkin portrayed by Peter Cushing (“Dracula”), a beloved actor who died 20 years prior to the release of this particular “Star Wars” installment.
Besides bringing actors back to life, studios have also started to animate younger versions of stars like Robert Downey Jr. (“Iron Man”) in “Captain America: Civil War.” While the script did call for a brief appearance by a younger Tony Stark, Marvel’s experiment inspired Martin Scorsese to “de-age” Robert De Niro to fit a younger role in the much-anticipated film “The Irishman.” So where’s the line? Should older stars skilled in their craft be able to take opportunities away from up-and-coming actors? Is de-aging as morally tricky as profiting off of digitally reincarnated actors without their permission? There remains plenty of grey area to cringe at and debate. However, the biggest concerns arise when this technology, once contained to the most powerful and wealthy companies that must obey legal restrictions, becomes available to that creep commenting anonymously online or irresponsible internet users.
The invention of FakeApp, and other similar programs, has made this a reality. Almost anyone can paste a random face on another person’s body with this software that leaves minimal differences between a real video and a “deepfake.” Like many worrisome communities on the web, deepfakes have a faithful following on Reddit where users post videos ranging from innocent re-imaginings of superheroes with different actors to modified pornography featuring celebrities, politicians or exes. These are the consequences of animation’s quest for realism — a quest that Uncanny Valley can keep in check. The discomfort that forms when an animation looks too realistic is an ethical defense mechanism. When a de-aged or computer-generated version of a deceased actor appears on screen, listen to the urge to squirm and feel a little sick in the stomach. Someone or something is trying to warn us about the future of animation: We are on a dangerous path and our only guide is the phenomenon of Uncanny Valley.