Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The Uncanny Valley

Most people have heard of "The Uncanny Valley" by now.  I've heard people refer to it in two contexts in the animation industry: characters that are almost lifelike but are just enough off to be creepy, and stylized/cartoon characters who have an off-putting amount of realistic detail.  I want to talk a little about the second one because I've run into it more often recently when artists have asked me for critiques.

I don't think there is a hard and fast rule for this type of uncanny valley.  When I watched The Adventures of Tintin, at first I was really bothered by the cartoon characters with realistic eyes and hands.  But by the end of the film I was engaged enough in the story that I didn't notice so much anymore.  I suspect that a lot of our reaction to the uncanny valley is a bias that can be broken down with repeated exposure.
These guys' eyes still freak me out
However, until the kids who prefer a Robert Zemeckis zombie-fest become the norm, artists who want to add realism into the animation industry are going to have to be sensitive to the issue.  Most audiences like detail and realism, so there's nothing wrong with trying to push things that way.  But how far can you go before you start alienating people?
Safely abstracted
Uncanny Valley
For a character with cartoon proportions, the complexity of the forms and surface details are both factors.

In my experience, the most important form details for navigating the the uncanny valley seem to be the eyes and the nose. Make the eyelids too defined, and the character will fall apart.  Visible skeletal structure on the hands and feet are a good target for abstraction as well.  Realistic forms on the ears and lips might be distracting, but don't seem to "break" the character in the same way as the other features.

Does this mean you can never define the forms around the nose?  Not necessarily.  A good rule of thumb is to ask, "Do I want people to stare at this feature?" Because people's eyes will be drawn to any unusually detailed part of a stylized character.  If the part they are staring at informs them about the character, then that can be a good thing. But if the nostrils aren't particularly important, then your design might be better off without them or at least without some of the structures surrounding them.

Even if you keep the forms simple, the texture on those forms can make a character disturbing.  Skin pores, tissue striations, and loose hairs can be particularly offensive (in this case intended for humor):  Finding a more abstract version of these textures can still give you high detail without sacrificing appeal:

Of course, some of you might look at my three examples above and think that the third version is just fine, while others might feel that the middle version is already descending into the uncanny valley. What is okay depends on your audience and what you're trying to say with the style (grotesque is sometimes good).


  1. Great insight. Thanks!

  2. I agree with Aaron. Great insights.

  3. this probably explains why caricatures creep me out sometimes.

  4. your third version is pure lowbrow art! :-D

  5. interesting. Thanks!

  6. this isn't a topic i was familiar with, although Tintin gave me the same feeling at first. there were enough other things in it that I loved as far as art direction and animation goes that I also found myself used to it. his character felt awkward to me (how it seemed real but creepy)

    your examples with your work -and this is coming from someone so far from professional and experienced- seems way different to me because the figure is stylized in it's proportions. I guess I appreciate the extra detail on the 2nd and 3rd. even the mario that you linked was somewhat interesting and not at all off-putting simply because of proportions. to me anyway. I guess I can see while reading that the addition of pores and such really start to stretch things.

    but then add movement to an illustration and things get weird sometimes no matter what it looks like in a still, which sort of added a creepiness to Tintin. maybe it was the way the face moved about. id have to watch it again...

    thanks for this post! it really got me thinking, and I'm still not sure where i stand yet haha.

  7. My 2 cents is that it has mostly to do with consistency. I am pretty sure I have seen work all along the spectrum that is appealing. The problems come when Tintin has a bobble head, realistic mo cap animation, and caricatured facial features. Your screen capture and probably a lot from the movie look great it's mainly seeing them in action that breaks it. Or Mario's extreme features with realistic details is a huge disconnect.
    I actually prefer slight exaggeration in a realistic painting. I may not believe in the valley.

  8. Thanks everyone for the comments!

    Kyle: Not everyone is the same on this, and it's fine to feel different than others on how much detail is acceptable. But part of working in animation is understanding how audiences will react and knowing when you need to make adjustments elsewhere. So if you like the higher detail, maybe it's necessary to make adjustments in animation or render style. It's also fine if you decide that unease is part of your aesthetic and own it. Then at least you can make appropriate decisions within what you're trying to accomplish.

    Dave: I knew somehow your opinions would lean that way. :) I agree (see my comment to Kyle) that you can make adjustments in other areas to diminish the effects. I do think when the proportions are less extreme (but still clearly caricatured) you can get away with more detail in certain contexts (e.g. no bobble-head mo-cap). I was talking about cases where the exaggeration is higher for this post. And that uncanny valley is only how the average person reacts right now. There will clearly be people who feel differently, and also a possibility that the average trend of feeling will change with time. Kind of like when Ice Age came out, the extreme proportions alienated a lot of people who watched the movie, but as more strongly stylized 3d films came out people just got used to that look. It's possible the same will happen here.

  9. I guess the valley is different for each person, I found the movie "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" consistently creepy, and Tintin was creepy at first, but not so much after a while.

    But sometimes exaggerated proportions with realistic details look pretty cool, like any of Jason Seiler's paintings, which may be in the uncanny valley for some, but always look awesome to me.

    Most of us are aware of the uncanny valley, but it's borders are pretty vague, so it's sometimes hard to judge how far to push the exaggeration/realism until a bunch of people go "whoa that's kinda creepy."

  10. is a spectacular blog! I love the pictures!

  11. well, I guess it depends on the public to which we want to, apply to certain things, how great art is that it always affects everyone in some way ...

  12. I'm on the fence about Tin-Tin. The most significant indication that the animation came close to UV was that I noticed it and asked myself what was up. Not close= total suspension of unbelief. I don't know that your examples spoke to me exactly - I think I'd have to see them at work. But I know what you mean. Dragon had TONS of specific detail that I really enjoyed and it didn't bother me in the least - perhaps because, as you pointed out - there was abstraction in all the right places.

  13. You know - it also has something to do with physics and movement. If something that looks real moves without the right flow or weight, that's really going to creep me out.

  14. beautiful girl, really good work...

  15. Louie: Yep, definitely different for each person. The point of this post was to make people aware of the issue and to direct people toward a possible safe zone. But like I said, what is a safe zone now may be different in a few years.

    K: I agree about movement. Motion capture can be the animation equivalent of the uncanny valley, and even a "safe" character that moves uncannily will still creep people out.

  16. I tend to have less of a problem with detail than movement, as far as "uncannyness" goes. Oftentimes the model and texture will be perfect, perhaps even based on a 3d scan, but the motion makes it creepy. ie clu in Tron: Legacy– though the uncanny creepiness there actually kind of supported the story

  17. Anonymous5:23 AM

    Thank u so much for this. It's very helpful. I'm used to painting more realistic humans, but recently when I aim to go for a more stylized cartoon approach, most people didn't like it. But I don't seem to see problem. I guess I'll need to do some homework on this matter.

  18. I'm doing the opposite, trying to draw my character as simple as possible and using only the required details. But i'm also getting more into a cartoony style because I want to increase character variety.


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