CG’s Uncanny Valley of Despair

Are you scared?

Coffee BreakYou should be. When you spend weeks, months and sadly yes, perhaps years developing an animation character the last thing you want is for your viewers to dislike your work. It looks really good and moves well, but there is just something you can’t put your finger on. Then you show it to your friends and fans and they think it’s crap.

Welcome to the Uncanny Valley of Despair.

According to Wikipedia definition:

Moriuncannyvalley“The uncanny valley is a hypothesis in the field of aesthetics which holds that when features look and move almost, but not exactly, like natural beings, it causes a response of revulsion among some observers. The “valley” refers to the dip in a graph of the comfort level of beings as subjects move toward a healthy, natural likeness described in a function of a subject’s aesthetic acceptability. Examples can be found in the fields of robotics[1] and 3D computer animation,[2][3] among others.”

Graph image by the original uploader was Macdorman at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

While the general psycological concept dates back as early as 1906, the term “Uncanny Valley” was considered coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori in 1970. At that time, Mori noted that as robots get closer to realism from 0-90%, people will accept their appearance, but somewhere after that they are repulsed by the character. Then later on as the realism percentage continues closer to a perfect human copy the character/s are accepted again. This gray area is subjective to several variables, such as:


of character


Scale 1-10

This repulsion factor is attributed to several hypotheses, one of which relates to a natural instinct that avoids anything that might be dead or diseased.  As the realism gets closer to 100% the smaller unrealistic appearance or behavior stands out more, thus causing revulsion.

Why it’s important to you. In order not to fall into this trap we first must understand it better. Approaches at expanding the boundaries and reducing the valley by top animation and film companies are as follows:

Your Film or Animation

Which side of the valley are you in: Left side, Right side, or Bridging, or in the Uncanny Valley itself?

On the left side safe zone we have characters that range from basic stick figures all the way to 3d furry bunnies that walk and talk like humans. This last endeavor by Disney’s Zootopia required over 2,000,000 hair particles on the head of each character shown here alone. Bringing Pixar closer to the Valley for realism while staying safe with non-human characters. It’s great for us to watch, but crashing death lockups for our home computers to try to match. Hang on though, there is an alternative to beating your head against the wall.

Stickman vs The Door from AnimateIt.netAs Comic Theorist Scott McCloud notes in his book “Making Comics page 97,  how a person can be reduced to a symbolic circle for a head with stick arms and legs. Simple, yet we instantly know it is a character of a person. With a solid script and some matching sound, your story gets across with render time going way down. As demonstrated here by Animate It with what might be one of the longest running GIFs out there.

Now for stage right of the safe zone for animation.

    • Extremely real. This is usually where things like Iron Man or special effects currently reside. It’s great if you can pull it off, but if you make a single mistake it will stick out and toss you into that Valley faster than your heartbeat, ruining the entire movie in the process. Artificial humans are rarely if ever shown in closeup. More common are epic combat scenes as extras shown in the distance like this:

Then there is a third option, I like to call Bridging the Gap. It’s where you use real actors for the realistic side combined with character animations from the left side. Its green screen and mo-cap (motion capture). Its guys running around in spandex covered in pingpong balls.

Planet of the Apes and Paddington the Bear , where the character is extremely real but not human and invokes human qualities. I.G. can talk and walk like a human, while co-existing with humans in a human environment. In Paddington’s case the movie CG was excellent, but unfortunately the story was dry. The preview being the best scene in itself.

In 2016 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or TMNT will be the thing to watch for Bridging. This is why we post at least two examples of animation on the homepage in addition to the gif in the header. One for the left side of the valley and one for the right.

How close to the edge do you want to get? That depends.  You can get away with character detail or extreme realism as long as your story line is strong, but if there is no story it doesn’t matter how good your realism is as everyone else will be quickly board with it.

Then there is the issue of capability. If your project will take too long to do or requires more money than your friends Swiss bank account then you’re a gonner before you get started.

Why do you want to get close? Again, why do you want to get close? Do you have a new approach and want to push the boundaries. Okay, go for it, just don’t be surprised if you can’t pull it off.

The Uncanny Valley itself.

There are alwaysRobot-human-face onscreen exceptions.

Perhaps you’re making a scary movie? In this case you may want your character/s to reside in the Valley … just to give it that edginess.

So, right, left, bridging the gap or spot on into the void, in the end what do you think?


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