Dead Eyes: Motion Capture’s Achilles Heel

When people left theaters in 2004 after viewing The Polar Express, people left with a feeling of discomfort. Personally, I left scared. I was so scared that I could not bring myself to watch it again for a couple of years. I began to wonder: what is it that makes the animation in The Polar Express terrifying but the animation of Pixar awe-inspiring? Why is it that one film brings wonder, while the other brings nightmares?

Simply put, The Polar Express was animated through motion capture, an animation technique that has commonly been compared to three-dimensional tracing. Motion capture allows animators to trace actors by following and mapping their movements onto computers and then going in and adding details to make their original character designs come to life. This technique is effective, as it allows animators to start with a basic form on the computer that they simply have to reshape and detail. However, this animation technique fails to properly animate human characters. It does not allow animators to correctly light human eyes, causing characters to have dead, emotionless eyes. As lighting and shape in eyes are crucial to conveying emotion, the inability to reshape and light eyes in motion capture creates dead eyes.

In The Polar Express, dead eyes are everywhere. Among them, the hot chocolate scene is the most haunting. During this scene, the train conductor sings and performs a song centered around the wonders of hot chocolate while waiters jump around him handing out mugs of hot chocolate. I am a hot chocolate fanatic and nothing would make me happier than this. The children in the movie, however, look robotic because of the dead eyes. It is difficult to find any authenticity within their smiles.

What happened here in The Polar Express is a good example of the uncanny valley. The uncanny valley describes the connection between an object’s degree of human resemblance and its uncanniness. The uncanny valley happens when our senses detect a problem with the level of humanness of the character. The best example is a prosthetic hand: people who see it and recognize it initially as a hand were taken aback upon realizing that it is prosthetic after shaking it. In this sense, Motion capture’s human animation is a member of the uncanny valley.

Motion capture creates characters that make the audience question if they are live action or animation while never giving a clear answer. People no longer remember the film for its message, but rather they remember it for its uncanniness. The Polar Express, in its entirety, is a film in which children are shown the magic of Christmas. However, people nowadays can only remember the grotesque illustrations of the characters.

However, is it just human characters in motion capture that are causing these feelings of discomfort? When you take into account Pixar films, which commonly use close-up shots of eyes to convey character emotions, how is it that they do not bring feelings of uncanniness to their audiences? The answer lies in the level of independence the animator has during computer animation. Computer animators have the autonomy to choose the effective shapes and sizes of the eyes so that lighting them becomes a much easier task. This is why although Pixar characters often have exaggerated large eyes, they are still able to escape the uncanny valley because the lighted eyes are better at appealing to the audience’s emotions.

One scene that is apparent in most if not all Pixar films is a closeup shot of a character’s eyes during a moment of extreme emotion. For example, in Tangled (2010) when Rapunzel comes to the realization she is the lost princess, a close-up shot of her eyes is shown. Through this shot, audience members can understand and see all of her emotions, ranging from anger to sadness. This shot is void of any body movements or dialogue. Yet, Pixar’s mastery of eye expression prevents itself from falling into dead eyes and uncanny valley like motion capture did. Another example is in Coco (2017) when Miguel plays his guitar alongside Ernesto de la Cruz on his television. Everything in this scene, from the music to the body language, helps the audience to see the passion and love that Miguel has for both music and Ernesto de la Cruz. The film then moves to show a frame in which Miguel stares at the broken-down television with pure adoration in his eyes. It is here that the audience understands fully how he feels about music. Unlike in motion capture, where the eyes appear to be void of emotion, Pixar characters “smile with their eyes.” 

Although it may seem that anything created with motion capture is doomed to fall into the uncanny valley, there is still a way in which motion capture can work: the depiction of non-human characters. Avatar (2009), one of the most successful films of all time, was done with motion capture. The genius of this film, besides using new three-dimensional technologies to create immersive worlds, was to use motion capture to animate the Na’vi. These beings very clearly are not human like. They do not have the same biological features, and thus they will not fall into the uncanny valley if their eyes do not light in the correct way. While watching the film, people are not accustomed to how the Na’vi look like, and thus they will not be able to recognize any uncanny details in them. Another film in which motion capture effectively depicted characters was in the Planet of the Apes reboot series. Audience members, rather than being uncomfortable with how the apes look, praised the way in which the apes appeared in the film. If audience members go into the film not expecting the characters to be human, audiences will be less inclined to spot the mistakes, allowing the film to escape the uncanny valley. 

In the end, motion capture is a form of animation with possibilities, but animators have to realize that it is a double-edged sword. Animators must learn from their past mistakes and try to avoid films in the future in which human characters are depicted through motion capture. In this way they can avoid falling into the infamous uncanny valley and not create a sense of questionable realism that makes audience members uncomfortable.

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