Realistic animation: film’s downfall

As animation comes closer to reality, it appears that audiences are being turned off.

by Bradford Paik

Until this past spring break, there were only two things that scared me in this world: narwhals and mannequins.

Narwhals, because theyâÄôre giant, albino beasts with unicorn horns. And I fear mannequins because of their eerie baldness and often disturbing usage of makeup.

Nothing else has really scared me until I recently saw the trailer for “Mars Needs Moms” while babysitting my cousins. ItâÄôs a trailer full of lifelike animations that penetrated my soul with their devilish, motionless eyes.

IâÄôve never been a huge fan of Disney animated movies âÄî Pixar films have fulfilled me quite well. But when I saw the trailer for “Mars Needs Moms,” I was frightened and slightly intrigued.

The movie demonstrated how far animation technology has come. Cartoon characters have been replaced with 3-D models. And while theyâÄôre still animated, they do capture quite a bit of the human body and nature.

But the animation in the movie also reiterated the old saying, “the devilâÄôs in the details.” Because as much as the characters look and emote like humans, itâÄôs the lack of tiny details that makes these futuristic animations creepy.

And IâÄôm not alone in this thought. You could probably guess âÄî for a number of good reasons âÄî that the movie flopped in theaters. The movieâÄôs budget was $150 million. It has only grossed $36 million globally.

Maybe it was a bad storyline or the fading attraction of 3-D movies. But some postulate that the nearness to human likeness was the downfall of this movie.

This is where the theory of the “uncanny valley” comes into play. The theory states that as objects âÄî animations, robots, puppets, etc. âÄî become more humanlike, we, as observers, will become repulsed.

And the “uncanny valley” is just that. ItâÄôs a valley. If you were to traverse it from one side to the other, you would start in a land of stuffed animals and puppets, pass through a gorge of zombies and corpses and finally climb up toward actual human life.

The “uncanny valley” is why audiences find characters from “Toy Story” âÄî toys with human traits âÄî endearing and cute. But as animations become more humanlike âÄî such as in “The Polar Express” and “Mars Needs Moms” âÄî moviegoers actually begin to notice how “unhuman” the characters are.

“People always comment on things feeling strangely dead around the eyes,” explained Chuck Sheetz, a professor at the University of California-Los Angeles and animation director of “The Simpsons.” “If it gets too literal, it starts to feel false or has a strange effect.”

This near-realistic animation also brings about a deeper question: Would our human psyche ever allow us to accept a human animation as real?

Simply put: no.

“Subconsciously you know what youâÄôre looking at isnâÄôt quite right,” said Greg Philyaw, business development director at Giant Studios, who helped with capturing of movement for “Avatar.”

Maybe itâÄôs the shiny skin or unresponsive faces. But just like a prosthetic arm doesnâÄôt fool anyone, a lifelike animation doesnâÄôt either, because deep down, we know itâÄôs not real.

Sure, there might be a point where animation comes close to capturing real life. Audiences at that point might even be fooled.

But in a world where cartoon character-driven movies have been constantly capturing the hearts of children, why do we need to navigate this valley of ungodly sights?

This valley has already been bridged. The canon of films created in the past century has created timeless animated and real-life classics without the aid of high-tech animation. It seems that film companies and filmmakers are pursuing new avenues just to make more money.

IâÄôm hoping they all end up flopping so that I can stop being frightened when I take my cousins to see movies.


Bradford Paik welcomes comments at [email protected].