Beowulf's Uncanny Valley

I got to see "Beowulf" in glorious 3D IMAX last weekend, and while I really liked it, I think ultimately it gets a bit lost in the Uncanny Valley.

In a nutshell, a virtual or robotic character is in the Uncanny Valley when it looks almost-but-not-quite-close-enough to real to be incredibly creepy. It's the gap between iconic-enough-to-be-convincing realism on one edge, and completely convincing on the other. Drawings or animations or robots that are between those two points trigger very unpleasant reactions in the viewer, making you feel like something is horribly wrong with what you're seeing.

Comics as a medium (and I'd include the visual style of HeroMachine in that generic visual set, even though it's not actually comics per se) gets a lot of its power from presenting visuals that are generic enough that the reader can invest them with their own life, but not so real that we start to keenly notice where they fall short. Here's an example of what I mean, inspired by Scott McCloud's "Understanding Comics":

Happy Face

Everyone in the world recognizes this as a human face, and accepts it readily as such. But why should this be? It lacks hair, a chin, jaw, nose, eyebrows, pupils, lips, features that most people would think are absolutely required to be a face. And yet, it's absolutely effective in making you think "That's a face" when you look at it.

Compare that to this still of a Robin Penn Wright's "Wealthow" from Beowulf:


Again you know right away this is supposed to be a person. But it's not a generic person, like the smiley face, it's very much an individual, and so you evaluate it as such. All of those millions of neurons in the human brain that are built to detect human faces, to pick one individual out of a crowd of thousands, start firing, frenetically looking for the most minute clues as to this person's identity.

And that's where the trouble lies.

You can see a bit of it in the still, particularly the waxy skin. When the character is in motion, it's much worse. I kept feeling that her jaw and lips were half-frozen, every time she spoke I got a little creeped out. It was like watching a mostly-revivified zombie moving around, which isn't bad for a video game but not what you're going for in a supposedly real woman. The hair bothered me too, it seemed too ropy and stiff, and the headband seemed like it was a molded part of the head instead of a separate item. These are all small things, but because the rest of the face is so close, the small things were that much more significant.

Filmmakers, animators, and illustrators all have to grapple with the fact that millions of years of evolution have adapted our brains to pick out differences in human faces. We can't help but notice when things are off, even if we don't think about it consciously; our social survival for eons has depended on it. Even when all you're dealing with are very abstract images like the smiley, our massive face-imaging brains fill in the gaps to complete the picture, satisfying the biological imperative to see individuals. The lack of specificity triggers that face-recognition hardware enough to satisfy, but not so much as to frustrate.

But when most of those details are already filled in, the neurological machinery really hits its stride, drilling down to very small things. And when the total of all those small things don't add up to equal "Real Human Face", we're bothered. Something's not right. We feel a little uncomfortable because the parts that aren't right stand out against the backdrop of all the stuff that is spot-on. This is the Uncanny Valley, that massive drop-off in believability between generic-but-convincing (like a smiley face or comic book drawing) and very-close-to-real-but-not like a bad digital animation.

Don't get me wrong, the characters in Beowulf are really, really close. On the sharp incline of The Uncanny Valley, they're definitely on the upslope of the far end; I don't think it's going to be long before we see digital actors that are indistinguishable from real ones to most people. In fact, for stretches of the movie, I think they've gotten there already, with Wiglaf in particular. But it's not there yet, not all the way. I kept wishing throughout the movie that they'd just done away with the rotoscoping and instead used the actual characters, filling in with special effects where necessary. The story's excellent, exactly what you'd expect from the incredibly talented Neil Gaimon, but ultimately animation has to serve the purpose of telling a story. And in Beowulf, too often it instead distracted from it.

Beowulf image copyright © Paramount Pictures, 2007.

4 Responses to Beowulf's Uncanny Valley

  1. Jeff Hebert says:

    From the HM Discussion List:

    I dunno. I didn’t feel creeped out at all during the movie. Maybe it was because I didn’t see it in Imax. But, I did see the 3D version.

    Most of the time it was fine, I think the female characters are mostly where I felt it, particularly with the queen. And probably “creeped out” isn’t really the right phrase, either, but more the sense that I got jarred out of the immersive movie and into thinking “that’s not a real person”. The other times were every now and then when Beowulf would speak (the mouth just didn’t move right) and a number of times when hands were in the scene — they looked kind of sausage-y. But the queen was the worst, I just never bought the image as being of a real person. Whenever she was on I’d think “Geez, that’s a plastic, stiff, computer simulation.” I think the trick with animation is to create a world that’s so consistent that you never fall out of thinking it’s real, but that didn’t work at those points in Beowulf, at least for me.

    Overall, though, a really good movie that I liked a lot.


  2. cfc says:

    Reviews keep saying this, and I don’t get why. Yeah, most of the secondary characters were obviously CGI. I don’t see anything creepy about this — it just felt like watching a puppet show with remarkably detailed puppets.

    But Beowulf and Grendel’s mother looked REAL. After watching the movie with my fiancee, when I pointed out to her that those two had been CGI as well, she would not believe me until I showed her the interviews where the actors talked about it. If I hadn’t known already, I wouldn’t have been able to tell in most scenes either.

  3. Jeff Hebert says:

    I think it’s because the intent was for the characters to look real. And in the case of Beowulf and a couple of others, they got there most of the time. But when you’ve got some real-ish characters and then they slam into an unreal-ish character, the illusion is shattered. In something like “The Invincibles” where the characters are all cartoonish, it’s easier to keep the whole thing consistent. There shouldn’t be anything that jars you out of immersion, but there were times in Beowulf when I’d be totally into the scene and the action and the plot, and then the queen shows up and I’m like “Damn, that doesn’t look right.”

    If all of the characters and scenery match, that’s cool, I don’t care if it’s wooden puppets or CGI. But the more “realistic” you try to make the characters, the harder it hits you when you get something wrong.

  4. William Brust says:

    I didn’t have any issues with the Uncanny Valley. I just hated that it was animated period. Beowulf is an epic tale full of blood, sweat, tears, sex, violence, and quasi-Biblical allusions. Ok, maybe not so much sex. But still. I need to see a real man hacking the arm of a real monster with a real sword. I need to see real blood splatter on a real wooden door-frame. I do not need Goldilocks the Dragon acting like Brian Blessed.