If you are a gamer, professional animator or animation enthusiast, you’ve undoubtedly heard about the “uncanny valley”━and also, that you should avoid it at all costs. To designers and animators everywhere, the uncanny valley is something that you never want to see in your work.

What is the Uncanny Valley?

Today the term is common lingo in the art and animation industries, but it started out in a different field. The coin was termed in 1970 by Masahiro Mori, a Japanese robotics professor who studied how humans react to non-human beings.

He found that when we are exposed to increasing depictions of realism the amount of emotion or connection we feel for the non-human depiction increases. However, once the level of realism crosses a certain point, where the inanimate object becomes almost too real, we are repulsed.

The chart of the below response shows that when inanimate objects look not quite realistic, our emotional connection to them immediately drops off. Instead of these inanimate creations being perceived as life-like or realistic, they are as dead as a corpse. Furthermore, when these corpse creations are animated to move, it starts to look more like a scene from Night of The Living Dead or Resident Evil. Unless you are creating a zombie animated film or game, you don’t want your characters falling into this realm.

 

(image source: Smurrayinchester)

Why the Uncanny Valley Can Ruin Your Animations

The problem with the Uncanny Valley in animation is not that a creation is too realistic. It is that it is almost but not quite realistic. Something is off in the way a 3D model is constructed or animated that makes it creepy and off-putting to viewers. Some highly anticipated animated films like The Polar Express and Beowulf bombed at the box office and were harshly criticized because they made this fatal animation mistake.

How to Avoid the Uncanny Valley

The key in beating the Uncanny Valley is in quality modeling and animation, but also in expressive facial animations. Usually, it is in the facial expressions of computer-generated characters that the flaw becomes the most noticeable.

Don’t give the dead eye.

The phrase, “the eyes are the windows to the soul,” is more accurate than you may think. For example, psychologists and researchers have conducted several experiments that show that eye shape, movement and even pupil dilation can express a person’s emotional state. For instance, your eyes are different when you give a fake smile out of politeness than when you genuinely smile at something that you find enjoyable or funny. When animating, pay close attention to your characters’ eyes. 

Get rid of inconsistency.

The Uncanny Valley is fundamentally caused by a series of inconsistencies. For example: 

  • Inconsistency of realistic modeling and creepy animation;
  • Inconsistency of the animation of one part of the face and another;
  • Inconsistency of the 3D face animation and the expressions of our own faces.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was an animation software that could eliminate these inconsistencies? This is where NaturalFront 3D face animation software can help. It creates 3D models directly from one or more photos of a real person, and realistically simulates the movement of complex facial muscles to create believable expressions ranging from sweet smiles to bitter anger. Furthermore, the software is extremely easy to use, with nearly zero learning curve.    

Lip-sync carefully.

When audio doesn’t perfectly match with an animated character it throws us off. When that animated character is also creepily realistic, it increases our repulsion even further. Lip-syncing is one of the more difficult animation tasks, but with the help of tools like NaturalFront’s 1-Click Animation, animators can upload audio to their creations and perfectly sync it to mouth movements.

Facial animations should reflect actual expressions.

One of the huge reasons why animations fall into the ugly uncanny valley is their not-quite human facial expressions. In animation, you can either be cartoonish or overly expressive or produce expressions that are so realistic and relatable that they stir emotion in viewers. Mediocre or almost there facial expressions will land you in the valley.

However, seasoned animators know that creating believable facial animations is easier said than done. Researchers have mapped more than 3,000 facial expressions that humans are capable of conveying. But professional animators may model millions of possible facial expressions for their characters. Doing all of that in a small team or on your own is nearly impossible for most. That is why NaturalFront also aims to make facial animation easier by generating a wide range of believable expressions in a matter of seconds with its Facial Animation Software and Unity Plugins.

The magic of animation is that it can allow us to create and do things that either wouldn’t be possible or poignant if done in live-action. Creating realistic animations can stir up emotional connections to a point, but it is important to know where that limit is and how to avoid crashing into it.