Tintin’s descent into the ‘Uncanny Valley’

Tintin, the quiffed young hero, will be making his UK debut on the big screen next week, but has the popular comic’s movie adaptation fallen into the ‘uncanny valley’, and how will this go down with audiences?

The Adventures of Tintin: Secret of the Unicorn uses motion capture technology to bring the story to life, but some have wondered whether this attempt at trying to make its characters look as human as possible strays into the computer animation wilderness known as the uncanny valley.

This is where images are intended to look and act visibly human, but they end up creating a feeling of revulsion, and rather than look lifelike, are just plain creepy.

As this diagram shows, the valley is the dip in observers’ positive reactions – it reaches a point where the character stops being human-like and starts to look unearthly.

Some have made the point that the Tintin trailer seems to avoid showing you the faces of the characters, and you never have a close-up shot of people speaking – are the film’s producers worried that there might be something amiss with the animation, and want to avoid weirding out potential audiences?

It’s already managed to put off one reviewer, who called the animation “ghostly”, and said: “their eyes are dusty, and watching their antics is like partying with ghosts. Turn away; don’t meet their gaze. When we stare into the void, the void stares back at us.” Take a look at the trailer above and decide for yourself.

The film’s producer Peter Jackson, the man behind the Lord of the Rings, has explained the care and attention that went into making the characters as realistic as possible.

“It’s a very interesting process, because you have to build eyes in the computer with the same physical characteristics as real eyes,” he told a newspaper recently. “You have to have refraction, reflection; you have the back of the eye, which reflects the light, the colours that are coming in from the environment – there’s actually a real scientific thing that we’ve studied enormously and created. 

“I believe you look at Kong or Gollum or Avatar and those eyes are alive, and that’s critical. There’s not a lot of point doing it if you can’t achieve that. I like using technology to create these things, but I absolutely believe no one wants to only look at artificial people. It’s fine to have Tintin, Gollum, the Na’vi as part of the range of characters.”

Steven Spielberg’s Polar Express is the most commonly cited film that falls into uncanny valley territory – the 2004 film was critically panned, with the Economist reporting that one reviewer said the characters were so frightening, the film should be subtitled The Night of the Living Dead. 

Contrast this with the hugely successful Toy Story, which manages to avoid veering into the same traps. The human characters (such as the toys’ owner Andy) are stylised and more cartoonish, and don’t seem to attempt to look too human.

Spielberg directed Tintin, so it will be interesting to see whether he has learnt from his experience with the eerie Polar Express. Maybe Tintin’s uncanny valley qualities won’t put off viewers, but for me, the boy reporter looks a little too creepy for my liking.

© Melanie Hall 2017