Sunday, August 28, 2011


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? 

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.


jock123 said...

Actually, I have to say I was more incredulous about the drawing you used on the left than the mo-cap on the right. The CGI figure is a rendition which isn’t expressly Hergé’s Tintin, and that is something to get used to. The drawing on the left isn’t even close to a Hergé drawing of the character - it’s a knock-off by someone else.

The poor facsimile of Hergé’s drawing is far more “off” than the obviously different computer simulation.

Nora Lumiere said...

Actually, the drawing is Hergé's. from Tintin et le Crabe aux Pinces d'Or.
The quality of the picture is atrocious because I had to print the pictures then make a jpeg file since Blogger wouldn't allow me to post the 2 pictures side by side for some reason. I intend to check Blogger in a couple of days so see if has revised its idea of "small".
And, better yet, I'll be working on a proper website that doesn't have such problems.
By the way, I disagree that we have to get used to Tintin as a zombie.

Colin Shelbourn said...

Excellent blog. I sat through Shrek thinking, why aren't I liking this? Then it dawned on me - the characters faces were too close to real but just sufficiently removed to creep me out. With Monsters Inc., no such problem - the characters were designed by cartoonists and retained the simplicity and charm of cartoons.

The only two mocap films I've seen that I enjoyed were the original Final Fantasy (which was astonishing for the time and more like a computer game) and Monster House. In the latter, they kept just the right side of the cartoon/live divide. Just.

I hadn't come across the concept of uncanny valley before, thanks for that.

jock123 said...

I’m not trying to be argumentative, but that’s not a Hergé drawing - for one thing, Tintin doesn’t wear his blue jersey anywhere in the book, so it has to have come from somewhere else.
What you have there is an image from one of the cartoons, probably the Ellipse-Nelvana series of the early Nineties, drawn by somebody else years after Hergé died, and it shows immediately (to me at least) in the lack of line-quality in the drawing, and how poorly formed the shape of Tintin’s head is.
The model head-shot isn’t Hergé either, but presumably was a guide for the animators.
Neither the cel-animation pic or the CGI offer facsimiles of Hergé’s work, but express artistic interpretation.
I’m not knocking the cel-animation by the way, it was great (I even like the Belvision cartoons!) - it just doesn’t measure up when compared to a drawing by Hergé, who was a true master.
Personally, left to my own devices I wouldn’t have done the movie CGI either, and nor do I think that the characters look like they should. However, that won’t stop me going to see how someone who does want to work with the medium thinks they should be.
Hergé wasn’t just a great artist - what makes the books compelling is the story-telling - they’ve been successfully adapted to radio, so they don’t live or die by the pictures; if Spielberg and Cº can capture that, I’ll be happy! :-)

Nora Lumiere said...

Colin - Yes The Final Fantasy does look like a computer game. Lots of mocap is used in the gaming industry.
Monster House was in CGI, I think, which is half an iota less creepy than tortured motion capture.

Nora Lumiere said...

I'm delighted to see your enthusiasm and dedication to Tintin and would be happy to use any Hergé art you'd care to provide.
By the way, Spielberg's Tintin and the Secret of the Unicorn was done in motion capture, not in CGI, which he leaves to Jeffrey Katzenberg at DreamWorks.

jock123 said...

Thanks Nora.

I wasn’t aware of the distinction - I assumed that mo-cap was just a method of giving movement to CGI images, akin to actors puppeteering the figures, rather than animators, as they both seem to use computer genertaed images.

Nora Lumiere said...

Actually, motion capture isn't animation. It's the movements of actual actors that are captured, as opposed to CGI where the action is created by animators.

John L said...

I think the ultimate goal of motion capture is to create reality - but an enhanced, designed reality where the characters can be created along with the backgrounds. Of course, Pixar gets this same effect by using CGI animation, but for some reason Spielberg/Jackson/Zemeckis want it to look "real". And as you point out, the more realistic an animated character looks, the more fake it looks.

Even if they keep developing this technology for the next 20 years, I don't think they will ever get it perfect. There is just too much subtlety in a live human face.

Nora Lumiere said...

Yes, there's nothing like a close up of a living, breathing human face, with telling tiny twitches and eyes that have something going on behind them.
I think there's great hope for CGI developing grace and style but I do hope they give up on mocap and this 3D craze soon.

Donn Pattenden said...


I used to work as a pencil animator and I have some strong feelings about the use of mocap, many of which result in nausea.

In my opinion, the principal of unity is key to the success or failure of mocap technology.

Those films which use mocap to breathe life into photorealistic humanoids, or non-human primates, have worked because there is unity between character design and movement. That is, we are seeing a realistic image coupled with an entirely realistic action. Examples are Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Avatar and Lord of the Rings.

On the other hand, those films which use mocap to attempt to breathe life into caricatured characters have failed, because there is disunity between character design and movement. That is, we are seeing a caricatured image coupled with an entirely realistic action. Examples are The Polar Express and - I would argue - Happy Feet.

The Tintin trailer, with its odd combination of realistic and caricatured designs, is a particularly disturbing entry into the field. Many of the characters appear to be cartoon heads grafted onto realistic bodies, which has a jarring effect. The bodies move convincingly, but the facial movement appears underdone. Disunity again.

With regards to photorealistic human characters, such as those attempted in Final Fantasy feature, they never work because we viewers are all unconscious experts on human movement, and believability is just too hard to achieve.

Thanks for the article and for reading my lengthy post!

Nora Lumiere said...

Thanks for your comment Donn.
I've heard good things about Rise of the Planet of the Apes and maybe Perfcap works on an ape face, but I don't think it will ever work on a human face.
Polar Express was a particularly bad example of zombie-like behavior and facial expression and, although Avatar made a valiant attempt at acting, the lights were on in the eyes but nobody was home. Even though the action was good, I didn't care about the characters because the writing was so bad, but that's another story.

Donn Pattenden said...

Readers of this blog may already be aware that Robert Zekeckis is planning a sequel to Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

Apparently he plans to use mocap for the humans, and keyframe CG animation for the toons. Further evidence that Zekeckis has well and truly lost the plot.

Nora Lumiere said...

That is truly a nightmare scenario.
But, I must say, I was impressed with Eric Goldberg's flabbergasting CGI test footage of Roger Rabbit on You Tube. The big test, of course, will be Jessica Rabbit.
Could Zemekis/Disney's "Animated American" be Roger Rabbit2?

Nora Lumiere said...

I'd just like to say to Jock123 that, thanks to his energetic protestations, I've found a better picture of Tintin (from Tintin et le Temple du Soleil) and I hope it meets with his approval.