Crossing the Uncanny Valley

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F/X people have long been talking about completely synthesizing an actor’s performance in a film. The Curious Case of Benjamin Button comes closer than any American film so far in presenting a totally digital actor. A digitally recreated Brad Pitt appears in fifty-two minutes of the film, most of them in the first third of the movie in which he plays a wizened gnome. There’s no body in the frame, just pixels. Benjamin Button is the first film to cross what Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori calls the “uncanny valley” populated by zombie-like simulacrums of the human body.

The question, of course, is how far this is all going to go. Technically speaking, it could go all the way, at least in certain genres. Clark Gable and Rita Hayworth could be lifted from celluloid and granted starring roles, with Richard Jenkins in the background to add more verisimilitude. But the Hollywood star system is more than just actors on the screen. The entire celebrity culture industry depends on live people popping up out of limousines to the flash of cameras or getting arrested while driving drunk in their own cars. It has no use for a resuscitated Rita Hayworth. How many people under the age of 30 would recognize her anyway? Fifty years from now, when Brad Pitt really looks like a wizened gnome, who wants to see him on the screen decontextualized from Angelina Jolie and his odd hairstyles?

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2 Comments

  1. I’ve been curious about the uncanny valley for some time now, so it’s nice to see you talk about it here. I still don’t fully understand the idea, so I’m curious about the focus on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button and where a film like S1m0ne fits in.

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  2. The uncanny valley refers to the gap between humans and special effects recreations of humans. Masahiro Mori points out that one tiny fault in a F/X rendering of a human can make the figure seem like a zombie: it may look human, move like a human, talk like a human, but we don’t accept as such. That’s what it’s easier to produce a human-like robot figure like Wall-E than a perfect replica of a human being.
    The title character of S1m0ne was played by an actress, and I don’t buy the movie’s premise that a star could become so popular based purely on her screen image. There has to be a messy real behind the screen persona.
    It should also be noted that some stunts in action films may look like they’ve been digitized, but they’re actually analogue, so to speak. Sometimes a director will blow up an actual car because the F/X can’t perfectly reproduce the kinetics.

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