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Unvalleying the Uncanny
In terms of aesthetics, CG character animation has become a victim of its own success. Twenty years ago, recreating human beings in virtual 3D space was a fantasy, a “Holy Grail” of computer animation. Today, that fantasy is a reality that surrounds us in films, games, and even TV commercials. The modeling, animation and rendering of characters as photorealistic human substitutes has become almost commonplace in popular culture. But, an unintended side effect of this success is that audiences are largely alienated from, not attracted to, these characters. This seeming paradox is often called the “Uncanny Valley”.
The Uncanny Valley is a consequence of a very basic but incredibly refined human acuity--perceiving honesty, or the lack of it, when we observe people. The photorealistic characters in many contemporary CG-animated films are not honest. They pretend to be real humans, but we can feel that they’re not: their eyes don’t move properly, their movements are slightly too fluid. We instinctively realize we’re being hoodwinked, and we stop trusting.
In my films Bingo, Ryan and The Spine, I’ve dangled my feet over the Uncanny Valley and sometimes fallen into it. From my experience in creating these films, I will be sharing my observations about realism, believability, empathy and trust in CG character animation.
About Chris Landreth
Chris received an MS in Theoretical and Applied Mechanics from the University of Illinois in 1986; but before long, the siren call of Art beckoned. So in 1989, Chris studied Computer Animation under Prof. Donna Cox, at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA). This period of time doomed Chris to a lifetime obsession with this field.
In 1994, Chris joined Alias Inc. (now Autodesk Inc.), as an in-house artist. Chris’s filmmaking work during this time was one of the driving forces in developing the animation platform Maya. Chris animated two short films, the end in 1995, and Bingo in 1998. the end earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Animated Short Film, in 1996. Bingo received the Canadian Genie Award in 1999.
In 2004, Chris released Ryan, a short animated documentary. Ryan tells the story of his friend, Ryan Larkin, by using a strange combination of CG photorealism and metaphorical psychic flourishes (Chris calls this approach “Psychorealism”). Ryan received the 2005 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, and over 60 other international awards.
In 2009, Chris released The Spine, an unsettling exploration of a troubled marriage of two people in their mid-50’s, and choices which are both tragic and redemptive.
One of Chris’s primary passions is the study of the human face, and how it can be animated. He is an expert in facial anatomy and Paul Ekman’s Facial Action Coding System, used by animation studios worldwide. He has taught programs in Facial Animation at Seneca College, the University of Toronto, TRUEMAX Academy in Denmark, and Dreamworks Animation in California.
In April 2011, Chris received a Guggenheim Fellowship for his animated filmmaking, and for development of his upcoming short film, Subconscious Password.