The Uncanny Valley is just lazy production design


On Thursday, July 18th, all of the eyes of nerd culture should have been turned towards San Diego Comic-Con. What has been known as one of the biggest entertainment media expos of the past decade, which has only grown in size in recent years thanks to Marvel being Marvel, was to begin and set popular culture on fire once again. But the most talked about thing that day wasn’t about SDCC. It wasn’t even about a movie that was being shown off there. No, the most talked about movie of that day, and probably that weekend, was Cats. The musical about anthropomorphized cats was the talk of social media all day, with everyone agreeing on one general sentiment: the animation looks terrifying. 

Every second of the Cats trailer is pure nightmare fuel and the ridicule that the movie has received in the span of 72 hours has been staggering. From memes, to parodies, to social outrage, even mainstream media outlets had a chance to weigh in on just how unsettling the CGI is for the movie. Instead of making a trailer that filled audiences with dreams and wonder, we got a trailer that was scarier than the trailer for It: Chapter 2, which also released that same day but was lost under the feline fervor. It’s going to be an uphill battle for the movie to gain a positive foothold with mainstream audiences and I wouldn’t be surprised if Universal tried to put more of a focus on the music than the animation going forward. 

But would you believe me if I said that the animation for Cats was actually good? As much as I love to ridicule how strange the source material is, I can’t help but acknowledge that the animation itself is outstanding. We’ve come a long way from Toy Story, with humans that barely looked like humans in 1995 to today where humans can now look like cats. But there’s a difference between having an amazing technology and knowing how to properly implement it. With so many movies in 2019 dabbling in extensive CGI work to transform their actors, it’s high time we look at what makes some projects beautiful and what makes some fall flat on their face. To do that, we must dive into the depths of the Uncanny Valley.

For those who may not have heard of the term, the Uncanny Valley was developed in relation to how certain types of animation or technology can get closer and closer to replicating real life. To use animation as our reference point, we can look at the beginning of CGI integration in, say, the music video for Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing.” We know those weird blocks are humans, but we’re not weirded out by them because they’re so distant from being mistaken for genuine human life. As time progresses and technology advances, it gets harder and harder to distinguish the difference between animated life and real life. 

Before animation can be indistinguishable from real life though, there’s a decline in cognition where we can sense that the animation we’re looking at is wrong. Maybe it’s the way the model moves or how the design isn’t quite like real life, but the slightest flaw in animation creates a visceral reaction of disgust. We’re repelled by it because it’s so close to real life, but the flaws are so much more apparent because of it. This is the Uncanny Valley. In other words, the closer animation is to looking right, the easier it is for us to think that it looks wrong. 

As part of the Decade Decathlon, I’ve seen a fair amount of animated movies that fall squarely into the Uncanny Valley. Mars Needs Moms is probably the textbook definition of a movie set firmly in the Uncanny Valley, but movies like that were few and far between for the longest time. There were more movies where the animation worked and audiences didn’t have a negative reaction upon watching it. Add onto the fact that so many movies now use CGI to create their characters that you could argue we’re slowly chipping away at the idea of what the Uncanny Valley is. We’ve never been closer to creating CGI so perfect that the human eye won’t be able to tell that the image is fake. 

On the other side of that coin, because technology is so good, it’s so much easier for any movie where the main gimmick is the implementation of CGI to go wrong. In the past seven months alone, I can think of several different movies where people complained about how disturbing the CGI is in each movie. Now, is that the fault of the technology not being there? I would argue no. We’ve been producing so many outstanding movies that use CGI sensationally that I don’t think it has anything to do with the technology not being there. Whether it’s the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book, or the painstaking performance by Benedict Cumberbatch as Smaug the Dragon, it’s clear that the technology has been at that level for years. It all depends on how well it’s used. 

One of the most famous cases of this new Uncanny Valley this year would have to be none other than our favorite chili dog chomping hedgehog’s movie, Sonic the Hedgehog. For months, fans were teased about what he could possibly look like, with the grand reveal delivering instant vitriol. Fans hated it and the reveal trailer was so universally panned that this was the first time in recent memory that I can remember a movie being delayed because the CGI was so bad. But when you break it down, the CGI wasn’t truly to blame for the bad reception of the trailer; it was the character design. 

Sonic looked off. His legs were too long, he had weird fur gloves, his eyes were strange, he was way more muscular than I think anyone could have ever wanted, and he simply didn’t look like the character we all knew and… tolerated. He looked like a little person in a Sonic Halloween costume. The animation itself wasn’t to blame because the initial designs betrayed the spirit of the character. It’s even more telling that according to director Jeff Fowler, the delay in release from November 2019 to Valentine’s Day 2020 was to iron out the redesign, not the technology. The tech was fine, but the initial concept was wrong and shouldn’t have made it past the first draft. 

Alita: Battle Angel, when it was first revealed, unsettled some audiences due to Alita’s anime eyes. Her eyes were too big for her head and it clashed with all of the other humans shown off in the trailers. What the trailers don’t bother to show off though is just how much CGI is used in the movie and the odd design choices were actually quite deliberate. It’s explained in the first 10 minutes of the movie that nearly all of the characters have some form of cybernetic enhancements to function. In other words, most of the characters have some form of CGI added to them because that’s how the characters in the world are supposed to look.

Alita took nearly two decades to make between on and off again production start-ups, but producer James Cameron was insistent, almost to the movie’s fault, on making sure that the movie reflected the manga in all regards. The production design on Alita is glorious, creating a massive world that I would die to spend more time in. That meticulous effort was also spent making sure the characters looked as natural as possible. Alita’s anime eyes work because they blend in with the larger than life and odd aesthetics of Iron City. There’s a woman who’s entire body is made of blades with a face slapped onto her body, but it doesn’t look strange because she looks more machine than man by design. It’s not like the movie is trying to hide that these are humans playing robots. One of the core tenets of this world is body modification, so seeing strange robotic humans works in the grand scheme of things because that was how it was always supposed to be. 

The same goes for The Lion King, which took the animated classic and turned it into a nature documentary. The movie looks like it’s set in the African Savannah because Jon Favreau wanted it to be set there. Him and his production team traveled to Kenya to examine the wildlife and based all of their designs as closely as possible to real life species. No humans at all, just meticulous CGI meant to replicate real-life as authentically as possible. This wasn’t a throwaway decision by Favreau and Disney. This direction was sewn into the fabric of the movie with no reservations. It was all in on this concept, and it shows with just how stunning the movie looks. Both Alita and The Lion King could have been victims of the Uncanny Valley, but weren’t due to smart decisions in production design.

And now, we’re back to Cats. Are there elements of Cats’ production design that does work? Certainly. Having the sets all be gigantic versions of basic rooms sells that size difference between the actors and the roles they’re meant to be playing. The actors are meant to be the size of cats, so of course the world is going to be larger than how we would perceive it. But then ask yourself this; why do the female cats have human breasts?

No seriously, if these are meant to be cats, why do they look like tiny humans with fur? Why do the cats have human breasts? Why is Judi Dench wearing a fur coat? Why do the cats have human noses, or human fingers? It’s like Tom Hooper wanted to be true to the musical by having the actors turn into cats, but he just couldn’t commit to the concept. He couldn’t give them cat nipples, or paws, or claws, or noses, but he could give them cat ears, tails, and try to make them walk like a cat. He had the technical wizardry of CGI behind him, with programs so advanced that it could make us believe that Sandra Bullock and George Clooney were astronauts in the nothingness of space, or that Leonardo DiCaprio got mauled by a bear, or whatever the hell David Cage was doing here. He could have done it all, but he didn’t commit to the potential of the project. He didn’t care to go the extra mile to really turn the actors into cats, plain and simple.

Instead, he took the easy way out. He put some fur on his actors and told them to walk around like cats. Moving like a cat does not a cat make. Maybe he’s trying to be more authentic to the original musical where actors are given heavy makeup and costuming to replicate being a cat, but stage actors have to work within the limitation of the art form. There is no CGI on stage. You can cry until the cows come home that he’s being faithful to the original musical with how there was a disconnect between the actors appearance and the actor’s role, but never once were they meant to look like real cats. Hooper wanted his actors to look like real cats, but without any of the style or flair from the musical. He most certainly got that, but without realizing the implications that would bring. Hooper could have done anything he wanted with his CGI, but he didn’t fully think it through. Cats is stuck firmly in the Uncanny Valley because of those frankly lazy decisions. 

A movie landing in the Uncanny Valley doesn’t happen by accident. CGI isn’t to blame for a movie looking as unsettling as it does. It’s a smokescreen for the real problem, which is lazy production design. When effort is clearly put into a product, then there’s nothing to worry about. Alita and The Lion King had extensive work done on how their world are shaped and how the characters will move, talk, breathe, and interact with their environment long before a single actor is brought on to make some takes. For Cats and Sonic the Hedgehog, not enough effort went into making sure that their worlds and characters were fleshed out enough and it shows. The internet made sure that everyone saw to that. It isn’t uncanny, it’s just lazy.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.