See What I’m Saying:

The Extraordinary Powers of our Five Senses


Chapter 8: Facing the Uncanny Valley


From the Everett Collection

The Benjamin Button character is widely considered to have the first computer-animated face that seems convincingly real.


        Steve Preeg didn’t feel confident about his new project. “This is the first project I’ve worked on that has a really good chance of complete failure” he told his brother. When his brother asked why then, he had decided to take it on, Preeg answered “Because if it does work, I think there may be an Academy Award in it for us.” And it did work —and Preeg, along with his colleagues at Digital Domain, did win an Academy Award.

        But it was a long and precarious road to Oscar night. Preeg and his crew had been tasked with something that had never been successfully done: computer animate a human face that truly looked real. But not only did the face need to seem human, it needed to convincingly talk and emote for fifty-two minutes of screen time. This animated face—and head—also needed to be super-imposed on a real, filmed body which was constantly in motion. And not just any face could be animated: the face needed to look just like Brad Pitt – in old age.

        When Preeg’s company, Digital Domain, won the contract to create the digital effects for “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”, he was dubious that they could animate a convincingly naturalistic character. In fact, the entire industry was dubious. Preeg, who is in his mid-thirties, and has a full, friendly face, remembers, “We had a really difficult time getting people to work on the project, from both inside and outside the company”. And understandably so. Attempts to animate a compelling human face had been disappointing. In fact, Preeg had been involved with some of these attempts. Just two years earlier, Preeg’s crew worked on a commercial for ‘Orville Redenbacher Popcorn’, featuring the long-deceased Orville himself. Their attempt to re-animate Redenbacher’s smiling, chatty face produced a character that, while having a clear resemblance, struck reviewers as “creepy”, “gruesome”, and the “world’s first pitch-zombie”. Eight years earlier Preeg had worked on character design for a fully-animated film, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”. While more stylized, the pseudo-photorealism of the characters’ faces also struck reviewers as “mechanical” and possessing “a coldness in the eyes”.

        At the same time, Steve Preeg and Digital Domain had tremendous success animating non-human characters in film. These characters included King Kong, in the 2005 eponymous film, and the creature Gollum, from “Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King”. The character animation for those films was considered fully compelling and realistic – or as realistic as a giant gorilla and reptilian hobbit could possibly seem.

So why did Preeg and his crew have such difficulty animating human faces? In fact, the problem is widespread. Attempts by other companies to animate realistic human faces had fallen to similar, and worse criticisms. Characters in films including “Beowulf”, and “Resident Evil” had all been described as being eerie and zombie-like. Perhaps most conspicuous of the recent attempts was 2004’s “The Polar Express” – a children’s Christmas film starring a series of animated Tom Hanks’. It used a state-of-the-art motion capture technology to apply Hanks’ facial expressions and movements to the multiple animated characters he voiced. Still, reviewers found the film’s faces “unnerving”, “creepily unlifelike”, and possessing a “chilly, zombie-like aura”.

        There seems to be something about quasi-realistic human faces that makes them eerie. This doesn’t seem to be a problem for non-realistic, caricaturized faces. Cartoon faces from Popeye to Homer Simpson have long seemed emotive and engaging, without being creepy. It’s when animated faces move closer to realism that they seem off-putting.

        This is, in fact, a well-known phenomenon, called the uncanny valley. This concept was originally discussed by robot designer Masahiro Mori. It describes how we react to seeing humanoid forms—robots, animated characters—which posses nearly human characteristics. If robots or animated characters are almost, but not quite, life-like, we often find them eerie.