Surrealism and the Uncanny Valley

Although I still have a preference for classic computer games that use sprites for graphics, there’s something to be said for a more realistic look. People feel more connected to inanimate objects if they have more human traits. That is, until the objects get TOO close to human. Get too close and they fall into the “uncanny valley” where people actually feel revulsion. It’s a problem for new and “improved” graphics in movies:

Most recently, moviegoers complained about the near-realistic depiction of humans in Disney’s 3-D flick “Mars Needs Moms.”

A theory called the “uncanny valley” says we tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute. Our affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it looks too human, we suddenly become repulsed.

Instead of seeing what’s similar, we notice the flaws _ and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make us uncomfortable.

If the representation is close enough to be judged as “human with strange differences” instead of “replica with cute human similarities” we get uncomfortable. This applies to prosthetic limbs, and robotics as well as animation.

Talking with Julia about it, she pointed out that the uncanny valley phenomenon applies to other topics, including fiction and surrealism. The ‘eerie’ feeling which can arise from surrealism seems most powerful when the world is close to reality – but with a few unsettling differences.

One of my favorite examples comes from Pirates of the Caribbean 3, when the audience finds Jack Sparrow (Sorry, CAPTAIN Jack Sparrow) in Davy Jones’ Locker:

Sure, it starts out a bit strange but definitely within the realm of normality. Then they throw a curveball: there are multiple Jack Sparrows. While we’re busy wrapping our heads around that, reality puts up a good fight: they’re doing doing typical sailor things on a ship. Wait, scratch that, one of them just laid an egg.

The film keeps enough similarities with the rest of the Pirates reality to make the comparison “Normal ship with strange differences” instead of “crazy ship with some similarities to the real world”.

3 Responses to Surrealism and the Uncanny Valley

  1. Henry Shevlin says:

    This commercial for Orville Redenbacher popcorn is frequently cited as being at the very nadir of the uncanny valley. It doesn’t help that the man had been dead for a decade when they decided to CGI him and use him to advertise products.

  2. Hmm, I wonder if this is why clowns are creepy to some? Makes sense- too close to human to be cute and charming, instead they’re repulsive and frightening. I was also thinking how easy it would have been to make the scene you showed so creepy it would set people on edge- an effect of little value in a disney movie. They really did walk the daggers edge in that scene, I have to hand it to them.

    • Jesse Galef says:

      I can definitely see parallels – clowns are normal enough that we expect them to act like everyone else, but then their facial expressions don’t change! I would be horrified by someone approaching me with a glassy smile plastered on their face…

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