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Weta Digital and its expedition up the uncanny valley

by on November 13, 2012

Hello class,

In today’s blog post I’m going to write about the wonder of Weta Digital, and how they relate to the uncanny valley. You may recognise their name as being attached to “Avatar”, “The Lord of the Rings” or “King Kong” to name but a few. All these works are noted for their pioneering visual effects.

Weta Digital is based in Wellington, New Zealand and is currently working on the much anticipated “Hobbit” trilogy. For those familiar with Weta, the first image that comes to their mind may very well be of a MoCap (motion capture) suit. A MoCap suit is typically grey in colour and adorned with many, many dots which are registered by the cameras and applied to virtual models of characters.  Andy Serkis – one of my favourite actors – wore these suits when playing Gollum in “The Lord of the Rings”, Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, Captain Haddock in “The Adverntures of Tintin” and even King Kong himself.


Now, how does this relate to the uncanny valley? MoCap technology has been a bit “hit and miss” in the past. When that style of animation was just getting on its feet, the physics of the characters didn’t seem quite right; they often appeared too light on their feet, their lip movements were weak and they had “dead eyes”.

Take a look at the trailer for the 2009 animation of “A Christmas Carol” from 1:05 onwards.

Is it just me, or does there seem to be something a bit “off” about the character? The eyes look a bit vacant to me, and the way his limbs move is ever so slightly uncomfortable to watch. This film used the motion capture techniques of ImageMovers, the same company behind “The Polar Express” and “Mars Needs Moms”, both reputed for their uncanny qualities. I would place this animation somewhere in the depths of the uncanny valley. Maybe not at the very bottom, but certainly not too near the top. Nice try, ImageMovers. Close, but no cigar.

I would, without a doubt, place “Avatar” on the far right peak of the valley. Weta achieved perfect photorealistic art which was an utter pleasure for all to watch. No one reported any feelings of discomfort towards the motion captured aliens. I completely bought what film was selling in terms of visuals, and it was extremely easy to forget that not a SINGLE element of the rainforest scenes was filmed. All of it was rendered by computers.

Here, I have found a clip of James Cameron explaining his ambition of scaling the opposite wall of the uncanny valley:

You can see the actors’ emotions reflected precisely in their animated counterparts – the shape of the eyelids, the inclination of a pupil, the smallest twitch in the corner of their mouth. What Weta has done here is thinned the veil between the acting and what appears on the screen to the point that nothing is hidden or appears missing.

Two years later, Weta Digital pioneered further into the seamless blending of MoCap with live action film. The finished product was “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, which saw Andy Serkis playing Caesar the ape in MoCap opposite James Franco as a normal human. This is another great video showing the intricate detail of emotion that was picked up by the motion capture cameras:

The removal of the obstacle of wigs and makeup prosthetics (that much limited the expressions of the actors in previous “Planet of the Apes” movies) liberates Serkis’ performance and he delivers full psychological and emotional realism to the character. This film must have been more of a challenge for Weta Digital – in terms of characters – since the audience is already familiar with the biology of an ape; we have all seen them, as opposed to an imaginary alien species as found in “Avatar”. It’s interesting how, even though the X axis on the uncanny valley graph measures closeness to a healthy human being, non-humans can be placed on the same chart. The apes in the film could be uncanny if they didn’t move right, the aliens could be uncanny if their eyes were empty. So what exactly should we rename the X axis? Any ideas? I suppose in terms of animation, as opposed to robotics, we could rename it “photorealism” or “life-likeness”. What do you think?

While you think about that, I’d like to point out some places in Weta Digital’s history where they hadn’t quite got it right. I found the robot, Sonny, from “I, Robot” to be a little uncanny. My younger self found this character a bit difficult to watch. Something just jarred with me. Perhaps the fact that I had no idea what material the robot’s face was made from gave me a sense of unease and disconnection from the character. I recently found this little video showing the character next to his actor (which I discovered, much to my delight, to be a recently favourite actor of mine):

I think I can now more or less pinpoint what I found uncanny here. The lines that make up his facial features are too undefined and faded. I can’t easily see where the whites of his eyes end and the rest of his metallic skin begins. By being uncertain of exactly how large or what shape his eyes are, I can’t really read where his pupils are inside them. The reason we evolved smaller pupils in relation to the rest of our eyes was for the purpose of better communication of emotions. The pupils of most other animals’ eyes tend to fill the entire space, and their eyes play less of a role in communication. The lines of Sonny’s mouth are a bit blurred, making the expression uncertain, and therefore less human.


And finally, just quickly, here’s a very short clip that is famous for its uncannily inaccurate physics. You may remember Legolas’ bizarre horse mount from “The Lord of the Rings”, roughly 0:08 seconds in:

That one makes me giggle every time. Legolas has basically swung onto the horses back BACKWARDS using only the strength in his wrist. If you look closely, his cape and legs seem to flow upwards before he does, making the movement resemble that of a dismount shown in reverse. His movements are also very out of time from the movements of the others in the shot. Watching this gives me similar feelings as when encountering something low in the uncanny valley, which leads me to believe that bending the laws of physics in a bizarre, doll like fashion can make something uncanny.

So, we have seen that Weta, since “I,Robot” and that little slip up in “The Lord of the Rings”, has come a long way to producing the flawless “Avatar” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. It’s amazing, the leaps and bounds taken in presenting the visual universe within the last decade or so. It’s not too difficult to believe that we have FINALLY reached the peak of animation potential. But then, that’s what they said at every achievement since the first colour cartoons.

So what does Weta have in store for us after “The Hobbit” trilogy? Well, it seems that their next projects are… “Ninja Turtles”… and the “Thomas & Friends” movie…

I wonder where trains come on the uncanny valley?


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