It’s safe to assume that most movie-goers have sat through at least some of the Christmas favorites, ranging anywhere from How the Grinch Stole Christmas to A Christmas Story. Though less frequently discussed, it’s safe to assume, as well, that a percent of these viewers have felt unnerved by certain animation choices in computer-generated festive films such as The Polar Express or A Christmas Carol. Have you ever wondered why you felt awkward, even a little disturbed, after having watched these CGI holiday flicks?
At this point, I feel compelled to cite the Twilight Zone introduction: “It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.” While, no, this discomfort that we feel in watching The Polar Express and A Christmas Carol (both CGI-based movies) is not quite the “Twilight Zone,” it does dangle somewhere close. This is an area we instead call the “uncanny valley.”
For those unacquainted with the strange phenomenon, the “uncanny valley” is where psychologists categorize experiences that seem “familiar yet foreign at the same time, causing some sort of brain confusion and, ultimately, a feeling of fear or repulsion” (Live Science). Stemming from an evolutionary tendency to feel uncomfortable around people that are unhealthy, something about them slightly off, the uncanny valley is a sensation most often felt when people are exposed to humanoid robots (see here), life-like dolls (search “The 6th Day SimPal Cindy” if you require an extremely creepy example), and 3D computer animation. The latter of the three is where our beloved Christmas films come into play.
The unsettling feeling in watching Christmas CGI flicks, as had I mentioned earlier, can be attributed to this hypothesis of the uncanny valley. The larger-than-life yet scarily realistic animation of characters such as Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol leave viewers feeling as though they themselves have taken a tumble down this valley of the imagination.
The strangeness of A Christmas Carol’s animation, as perfectly put by blogger Andrew Bloom, is“creepier and more unsettling than anything the film actually intended to be scary. The uncanny valley is ever present, with characters who are too exaggerated to seem like real human beings, and too realistic to have the outsized plausibility of a cartoon character. In fact, many of the film’s characters look like animatronic robots wearing stretched-out human skins, with movements that feel like the unnerved twitches of an electrified corpse.” When anything is explained as grotesque as that, its creepiness is pretty much undeniable.
Notorious as well for its animation is 2004’s The Polar Express,” the first feature film to be shot entirely on a motion capture stage. A technique of highly detailed facial motion capture, real actors were filmed wearing tailored Japanese bodysuits. No children on the cast,Tom Hanks played six separate characters, also serving as the template for the animation of unnamed lead “Hero Boy.” Hanks voiced and was filmed as the father, the conductor, the hobo, the Scrooge puppet, Santa Claus, and the Narrator.
“Although the film contained many children surprisingly there were no child actors in the film, instead adults performed as children. The illusion was created by scaling props and sets to make the adults appear to be children in relation to their environments. Every set had three scale versions, the normal sized set was standard scale, sets with children were 120 percent and sets with elves, which were just two feet tall, were at 200 percent. Tom Hanks played five characters in the film and to keep eye lines correct for his child character, a special rig called a “snorkel” was devised. It was a backpack with a three-foot rod with a ball on top of it, so when he was playing a child the adult playing opposite him would wear the rig.” (Simply Maya)
Footage then applied to the digital characters, the technique allowed for greater realism and more believable human motion. But MotionBuilder, the program used by animators, lead to some problems; the dynamic motion of adult actors seemed unnatural when translated to the animated children, spines and shoulders came out looking stiff and had to be loosened up, and tongues, eyelids or eyeballs (which hadn’t been marked on the actors) had to be done by animators. Though impressive elements, many of the animation choiced in The Polar Express just came out looking creepy, thanks to our innate sense of the uncanny valley.
For those that can stomach the strangeness of an animated character in all its human like(and unlike)ness, the uncanny valley is a dismissable theory. But for those that well relate to the disturbing experience of watching characters in A Christmas Carol and The Polar Express move and speak, a sensation of dipping into the uncanny valley is one scarily familiar. So there you have it—the reason you might feel so creeped out by CGI Christmas movies. Now you can rest easy knowing you aren’t alone in your discomfort. It’s simply science.