Sunday, August 28, 2011

TINTIN AND THE UNCANNY VALLEY

There’s something magic about a drawing that moves on the screen; we happily suspend disbelief and laugh at all kinds of pencil-generated silliness and cartoon exaggeration. But there’s something creepy about a well-known cartoon character in CGI (Popeye, Mickey, Smurfs) and downright repellant about a cartoon character in mocap. The same gags and exaggeration that charm us in pencil animation, leave us stone cold and disturbed in mocap.


We feel quite pleased when looking at the drawn Tintin but uneasy and incredulous when looking at the mocap version. Is that really Tintin?
     In other examples, look at this early Spielberg “Tintin” trailer. Aren’t you bothered by Milou’s spastic movements, Tintin’s glass face and Dupont and Dupond’s very realistic eyes looking through holes torn in the realistic newspaper? Somehow it just doesn’t work, it’s not funny or quaint, just disturbing and very contrived. This medium won’t let us suspend our disbelief.  It’s The Uncanny Valley effect.


Apparently, Spielberg’s idea was to put the skin of a Tintin drawing on a mocap body captured from a human actor, create a hybrid of live action and animation. But, just as oils and watercolors don’t mix, neither do mocap and Hergé's art. Animation and live-action characters can work together independently, like the wonderful, Spielberg-produced Who Framed Roger Rabbit but they can’t genetically combine because they’re different species.
    Some of the delightful drawing and colors of the comic books by Tintin's creator, Belgian artist and author Hergé, are retained in early pencil animation, but are completely lost in mocap, which sucks every bit of life out of a character and loses Hergé's lovely “ligne claire”, a fine, even line which is the secret of Tintin's charm. Imagine what wonders could have been achieved for Tintin in top notch pencil animation with a mocap budget. Especially since a ligne claire is also used in pencil animation.


Making a mocap movie is massively complex. A director has to hire live actors, have them act out the whole movie with sensors stuck all over them, including their face, then the data thus captured becomes stilted 3D action which has to be colored and clothed and smoothed out by animators. So much effort for a mediocre result.

Even though the Tintin: the Secret of the Unicorn trailer #2, poster and editing have been redone, we now have Indiana Tintin, not our beloved hand-drawn reporter of the charming rocambolesque adventures.  

This is not a critique of Steven Spielberg’s work, after all he never does anything that’s not innovative and excellent. Rather, it's a defense of the fragile art of Tintin. The fine ink lines and delicate watercolors on paper have been crushed by the weight of 3D humanoid figures and the jerky movements of mocap. Trying to force mocap on to hand-drawn animation is like trying to mate an elephant with a spider.

Directors, we understand your desire to explore new media, but this one has been explored enough and we find it distressing to watch. No matter how loud you make the music, how fast you cut the action sequences, how many sensors you use, mocap will never look alive. And why should it?  We already have live actors and wonderful cinematography to capture them perfectly and equally wonderful animation to capture whimsy and fantasy and we also have remarkable CGI to enhance both, so what exactly is the point of mocap? 

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Did you notice all the articles about the Uncanny Valley 
that came out after this blog was published? 
 The Guardian's even has the exact same title.
Just saying. 

PS December 2014: This Disney research is interesting but I don't think it will solve the problem because the uncanny valley effect involves more than eyes.
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 MOCAP, ANIMATION, CGI, COMICS, TINTIN, UNCANNY VALLEY, ART