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April 9, 2011

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Too-realistic animation can creep us out

COMPUTER animation has a problem: When it gets too realistic, it starts creeping people out.

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

A theory called the "uncanny valley" says people tend to feel attracted to inanimate objects with human traits, the way a teddy bear or a rag doll seems cute. People's affection grows as an object looks more human. But if it becomes too human-looking, people suddenly become repulsed.

Instead of seeing what is similar, we notice the flaws, and the motionless eyes or awkward movements suddenly make the viewer uncomfortable.

"Mars" may have plunged to the bottom of this valley of fear. "People always comment on things feeling strangely dead around the eyes," says Chuck Sheetz, an animation director of "The Simpsons" and a professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, the United States. "If it gets too literal, it starts to feel false or has a strange effect."

Skin texture that's slightly off really leaves people unsettled, says Patrick Markey, a psychologist and director of Villanova University's Interpersonal Research Laboratory.

The near-realistic animation championed by producer Robert Zemeckis uses motion-capture technology, where actors are covered with dots and skin suits and have their performances captured on computer. The dots provide the frame, and the rest is filled in with computerized graphics.

"Mars" creates humans that are more realistic and detailed than Zemeckis' earlier attempts in "Beowulf" and "The Polar Express" - both criticized for inviting this discomfort. The greater detail might have made things worse.

Doug McGoldrick, who took his two daughters to see the movie, says the faces of the main characters "were just wrong." Their foreheads were lifeless and plastic-looking, "like they had way too much botox," says the 41-year-old photographer in a Chicago suburb.

Marc Kelley, a 32-year-old pastor in Allegan, Michigan, who went with his two young children, says he found the renditions of characters "all annoying in their own way."

Indeed, when the mother of the main character Milo mentions the word "zombies" at the start of the movie, it conjures up a feeling that the characters themselves are undead.

Animation experts say the key to success is to be only authentic enough to tug at the viewer's heart strings.

The best example was "Avatar," the 2009 blockbuster that made US$2.8 billion worldwide. The humanoid, but blue-bodied Na'vi were alien enough not to trigger the inner rejection mechanism.

"My personal opinion is try to stay away from photo-real with a human," says Greg Philyaw, business development head at Giant Studios, which captured the performance of human actors for their digital re-creation in "Avatar." "Subconsciously you know what you're looking at isn't quite right."

The Walt Disney Co, which declined comment, plans to shut the Zemeckis-run company ImageMovers Digital, which made "Mars," to cut costs. Disney also nixed a plan to fund and distribute Zemeckis' "Yellow Submarine," a half-finished work he is now free to shop to other studios. Zemeckis declined comment.

"Mars" had an estimated US$150 million budget, but has brought in just US$34 million globally since its March 11 opening.

To be fair, there were other problems besides being visually unnerving. For one, it appeared to be marketed at young boys who are interested in science fiction but also are closely attached to their mothers. Some young children also got scared about the plot involving mommy abduction.


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