Avoiding uncanny valley

Great post by Dennis Jerz over at Seton Hill University that covers a variety of topics relevant to machinima. He summarizes the concept of uncanny valley in a pretty clear and straightforward way:

When animation is too real for our brain to process it as a cartoon, but not real enough for us to accept it on a deep, instinctive level; something seems wrong. We’re trained to sense trouble when someone won’t make eye contact with us, when their facial expression doesn’t match their words, when they moving stiffly (perhaps because they’ve been injured by a hazard we haven’t noticed yet).

If part of you is just a little creeped out by clowns, or china dolls, or you’re amused by zombies and other undead, it’s because those human-like creations fall along a line. To some extent, the more human-like something is, the better we respond to it. But at some point, when something looks very much like a normal human, but does not act like a normal human, our comfort level drops.

“Uncanny valley” is an easy trap to fall into with machinima production. While we now have the relative “luxuries” of realitime rendering and superfast development/production time, this is truly one of the challenges of this growing new field. Examples of uncanny valley abound in machinima, in fact, you’re more likely to find it then not if you watch a random machinima movie on YouTube.

How do we avoid it? I can’t say we will always be entirely successful at this, but we do try. Some techniques we employ are creative use of animations for purposes other than their intended ones, time remapping with After Effects, sparing use of closeup shots of avatars, and tons of tricky editing!

We also always “test screen” our footage with people NOT familiar with video games, Second Life or machinima. It’s crucial to listen to the feedback from “normal people” who have some perspective and distance from your independent machinima project, they are the ones who will clearly and unequivocally tell you if something in your production is “creepy,” “off,” etc. Sometimes when you’re immersed in your project, your suspension of disbelief far exceeds that of the average first-time viewer.

On the other hand, if “creepy” is what you want to achieve (for instance in a horror/thriller film), then it’s easy with machinima! I’m surprised we don’t see more of these genres, given the few “advantages” of uncanny valley.

Here’s my own handrawn uncanny valley diagram:

uncanny valley machinima
Uncanny Valley According to Gabe

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