An Uncanny Conundrum

So I create little animated movies and post them on YouTube. Does this mean I’m a filmmaker?

Uh. . .no. I have never envisioned myself as a filmmaker. Even with this recent foray into machinima, I’ve always thought of myself as a storyteller first, a writer second, and person who posts little movies on YouTube third. Even the term “machinima director” never really grew on me; I just use it because it’s the commonly accepted catchall phrase for anyone who creates little animated movies and posts them on YouTube.

By repeating the same thing three times in the above two paragraphs, I hope I’ve successfully established that I consider myself nothing more than a person who posts little animated movies on YouTube. This is for the benefit of any “real” filmmakers who might chance upon my work, follow the breadcrumbs to this blog, and wonder what the heck I’m doing. I feel I need a record for posterity, an “official” response to all the animators and moviemakers who realize I am not one of them.

Nor do I strive to be.

However, I am borrowing their tools. And that puts me in a strange conundrum. Kind of like the “uncanny valley” all animators avoid on pain of death. More on that in a minute. But first, I’d like to share some thoughts I’ve had lately about this thing I do: which is create little animated videos and post them on YouTube.

A year ago, I’d never even heard the word “machinima.” In fact, I have a record of the exact day I added it to my vocabulary. Here is the text of an email I sent to my cousin on February 3, 2011:

“Okay, now I’m even more depressed. I can’t have an original idea for shit. It’s even worse than I thought. They have a NAME for it:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Machinima

I give up.

Rhonda”

See, I thought I’d come up with a really cool new concept. I’d been playing Sims 2 for a while, and by that time had built several legacy families and neighborhoods. So I knew about the video capture options built into the game. But my results were always pixelated and unwatchable, and for that reason, I never gave it much thought. Then, by pure chance, I learned how to change the quality settings of my in-game camera. And just that quickly, Sims 2 became one more storytelling tool in my arsenal.

About that same time, I was enrolled in a college sociology class. One of our assignments was to compile a written portfolio using terms from each chapter. One I chose was “anomic suicide.” I won’t bore you with all the details of how a class assignment turned into an extracurricular machinima project, but out of this circumstance my video “Hello” was born. It was well-received among Sims 2 machinima directors and even stirred a modicum of interest in mainstream viewers.

So the wheels in my head started turning. Here was a tool I could use from the privacy of my own home, without a lot of expensive software or training, to experiment with alternate forms of storytelling and interact with potential readers of my novels. I never labored under the misapprehension that EA Games (owner of all Sims 2 copyrights) would tolerate outright commercial use of their product. But this was just for fun anyway, right?

But the thing snowballed before I knew what was happening. Other writers recognized the marketing potential in animated short films or book trailers about their novels. And suddenly Sims 2 was no longer an option. In order to pursue this new direction, I had to find a commercial platform that would allow me to own the copyrights of any short film I created—whether my video work met professional filmmaking standards or not.

Now here I am, knee deep in tutorials teaching me to use iClone and a professional 3D modeling and animation tool called 3DS Max. Odd, how someone like me arrived in this place. But I do enjoy the work, and the earning potential seems to expand every day.

However, this plunks me down right in the middle of an ongoing 3D animation dilemma–how to avoid the “uncanny valley.”

Wikipedia defines the “uncanny valley” in these terms: “The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of robotics and 3D computer animation, which holds that when human replicas look and act almost, but not perfectly, like actual human beings, it causes a response of revulsion among human observers. The “valley” in question is a dip in a proposed graph of the positivity of human reaction as a function of a robot’s human likeness.”

With Sims 2, this wasn’t an issue because EA Games and Maxis bore all responsibility for the animation. To quote Chrystie Bowie (with her permission, of course): “I don’t have a problem with Sims2 because they’re still so stylized.” Yes, Chrystie. Exactly. And this is what I couldn’t get so many uninitiated viewers to understand.

Now I have the opposite problem. With iClone, much of what is possible is far too “realistic” for most machinima aficionados. Mind you, these are the same aficionados who slammed “The Polar Express” and are now doing the same thing with “TinTin.” Neither of those movies evoke any kind of “revulsion” in me because of their animation. In fact, my husband and I watched “Polar Express” on TV last night, and I found the rendering nothing short of amazing. My husband, while initially unimpressed, eventually said that he “got used to it pretty quick” and saw no problem with the animation at all. So does the uncanny valley actually lie in the eye of the beholder?

Again, I’m going to quote Chrystie. This was correspondence we shared through private email, but I thought her insights were too germane to leave buried in my inbox. I’ve compiled several messages, edited only for continuity. Chrystie, please let me know if this arrangement doesn’t jive with your original intent.

(From Chrystie Bowie:)

For me, it’s all about the eyes. If they aren’t right, I immediately feel like I’m looking at a zombie. Now, I don’t have a problem with Sims2 because they’re still so stylized so I didn’t freak out like [some] did. With your iClone, the look was much more real-life but Finn had a live spark in his eyes so I immediately took to him. I’ll be interested to see if his eyes will track when you get him moving.

I think the Uncanny Valley is also more prevalent with older individuals. My generation is more resistant to the phenomenon and even resents animation that is on the crude side. I believe that as we get better and better at animation and simultaneously get more and more used to seeing it, the uncanny valley will become more shallow. Of course, look at live-action movies and shows that have explored the concept. AI Artificial Intelligence was basically about just that … the orgas discriminated against the mechas because of the Uncanny Valley. Then in Star Trek TNG, there were several episodes where Lt. Commander Data wasn’t taken seriously by other life forms because he was an android. Keep creating, keep making the medium more ubiquitous … because I personally would like to see a day when an author’s books can be translated to the screen with almost 100% faithfulness. Right now, that’s not possible because of the needs of human and animal actors and the cost of props and sets. If CGI characters played them and if there were realistic settings rendered by computers, the possibilities are endless.

You can definitely use my comments. If you want I’ll send you other musings about this subject that I’ve made in the past including how CGI animations would create possibilities for child characters in stories to be better represented because it would negate time restrictions due to child labor laws. Also, how the Uncanny Valley may be linked to the same mindset as racism and other forms of discrimination, that part of the psyche that makes people fear the unknown. It used to be a survival instinct but now it causes problems in modern society.

Well said, Chrystie. In fact, I think I shall adopt this position as my own when it comes to the matter. And because I don’t aspire to be a filmmaker and have no career to jeopardize by getting too close to the edge, I will brave the uncanny valley and risk disdain by “real” animators. To be honest, grousing from the animation community reminds me a bit of the sour grapes spewed by the traditional publishing industry when ebooks threatened to hijack the market. Now with ebooks outselling bound copies in nearly every venue, we’re hearing a completely different tune from New York’s Big 6 publishers. There’s a lesson in that, I think

So here’s my official statement about the uncanny valley: I want my animation lifelike, just as I prefer realistic art over the abstract and prose over poetry. Therefore I will continue to produce little animated films and post them on YouTube, and hopefully a few authors will benefit from a low-budget book trailer that captures the essence of their novel. Sometimes I will get the animation right, sometimes I will miss the mark. Eventually technology will bridge the uncanny valley and moviegoers will grow accustomed to the look and feel of machinima. Until then, all I can do is keep moving forward with this and see where the path may lead.

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8 responses to “An Uncanny Conundrum

  1. Just keep on with your work and it is bound to have lots of people watching to see what is coming next.

  2. Keep up the good work. Some people will always be nervous about something new. It’s art and no art appeals to everyone. Personally, I think it is amazing! 🙂

  3. LOL! Indeed I have been frustrated lately, with a bad case of the grumpy uglies. But I’m not quite as discouraged as I’ve apparently made it seem. 🙂

    I started this blog to document whatever progress I might make as a machinima director. Therefore the occasional bump in the road must be faithfully journaled. I don’t know if I consider this “uncanny valley” issue a real bump in the road, but learning that the machinima community frowns on movies like Polar Express and TinTin really threw me for a loop. And yes–sent my frustration levels through the roof.

    One might argue that the abysmal box office sales for Polar Express support the machinima community’s opinion about it. But having watched Polar Express, I suspect the nightmarish dreamscape and subcurrent of evil might have had more to do with that. What evil, you ask? Well, when that puppet reached out and grabbed the main character, I yelped like a dog stuck with a firepoker. And that hobo? Creeeeeeepy. . .no matter if he was a machinima character or live actor. I’d say more than one kid had bad dreams after watching that movie.

    I had hoped to make more of a connection with the machinima community at large as I transitioned from Sims 2 to iClone. But the more I learn, the more I realize how different my goals are from theirs. **Sigh.** Oh, well. I still haven’t been shaken from the idea that this medium is slowly creeping up on the mainstream, and that I should hold my ground until it becomes an accepted norm.

  4. Yeah, the Polar Express did have a sinister quality. At the same time, it was strangely compelling.

    Have they offered opinion on Beowulf? I don’t understand what technology produced that film. It was nearly like live action, but animated.

  5. And TinTin looks super good! I want to see it! 🙂

  6. You know, I think I did see a mention of Beowulf somewhere, but I can’t remember anything either way on that one. I’ll see what I can unearth though, as far as community consensus on that animation.

  7. I say, keep going and I offer only one reason for saying that: you are excellent at creating little animated movies and posting them on YouTube. Machinima may go far or it may not but if it does you should be right there ready to seize the day because you can.

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