November 16, 2010

Idea: The uncanny valley as a plot element

I’ve been thinking the past few days about the uncanny valley in animation. I think it could be used as a plot element in a movie. Through some bit of sci-fi magic, an all-CGI character exists in our real world, but nobody accepts him because there’s something just not right about him. He exists in the uncanny valley and so everyone has a bit of revulsion or discomfort about him.

But that’s as far as I’ve gotten. I’m not sure what kind of story would best make use of this idea. How does a CGI character live in our world? Is it a ToonTown kind of thing, where animated characters have always lived among us, and he’s the first CGI character to be born? Or is it magic? I don’t like the idea of magic in a story like this. I think it should either be sci-fi somehow, or just left unexplained.

Maybe it’s a variation on the Pinocchio story. Somehow an old man uses a computer and some unexplained plot device to create a CGI son. But the boy isn’t accepted by the other kids because he’s all CGI.

Or perhaps it’s a variation on the Frankenstein story. A scientist figures out a way to bring a CGI character to life, and the townspeople are so repulsed by this character stuck in the uncanny valley that they turn on him and hunt him down with pitchforks and torches.

Maybe a computer-savvy high school kid figures out a way to bring his online avatar into our world, but now that avatar is stuck here and has to try to fit in. But being in the uncanny valley, nobody can accept him as the new kid in school, and he remains an outsider. Oh, and there’s a love triangle.

It might work best in a short film, where you could get away with having an unexplained bit of magic more easily than you could in a feature. And it would cost less, since the main character needs to be fully computer animated, which could be pricey.

Also, it should be called “CG, I.”


If the budget is too low, you could go with “My Rotoscoped Life”

It’s a story like I, Robot, Pinocchio, or everyone’s favorite Star Trek TNG character, Data.

A CG character is trying to fit in by becoming more human-like. The more he works at it, the more he is shunned.

And eventually he accepts himself, develops his own style, and after finding internal happiness and satisfaction finds that people like him that way too. Real happiness must come first from within, not from the acceptance of other people.

Just like everyone loves a good stylized character with a lot of heart.

What if it were some sort of discrimination metaphor? There is a “CGI Town” where the CGi characters live (take their existence as a given). There are signs like “CGI Need Not Apply” and separate restrooms and the like. All of this is because the Uncanny Valley freaks people out.

This reminds me of that movie Simone

I love it. They would have to live in California, outside LA, in an area dubbed the Uncanny Valley.

Or maybe it’s a future where pretty much everyone wears contacts that allow them to see augmented reality - 3D creations blended seamlessly into our surroundings. Mostly this is used to display flashy ads, and stuff. However, Uncanny Bob is one of the first computer generated creations to become sentient. He meets up with a group of renegade CG characters (misfits from old ad campaigns: a Coke Santa Claus, a swimsuit model, some kids cartoon characters etc) and together they find a sympathetic human hacker who agrees to break into Big Ad Company and rescue their consciousness from the local sever onto the internet at large so they won’t ever be deleted.

Something like Weird Science (1985) but with CGI…fun concept.

My friend has an incomplete zombie themed story in his mind that could fit this character too. “The only person the virus/zombie/plague etc can not harm is CG, I”. Maybe one person in the love with CH, I in the triangle is infected/zombie while CG, I must save the supposedly uninfected person he/she is in love with…all the time being an outcast from the survivor community.

Thats enough for me. It is a boring afternoon and I got carried away.

My initial thought was an intelligence agency-created avatar intended for infiltrating terrorist cells, foreign governments, etc. without the expense/risk of sending human recruits. Initially controlled remotely by agents, eventually gaining sentience, whether by accident or design. The uncanny valley effect would help the CGAgent get chosen for suicide missions because no one would grow emotionally attached to them.

At first I liked the comparison to Frankenstein (I was reminded too of The Hunchback of Notre Dame), but those stories explore the concept of a character who is seen as less than human because of physical characteristics. The point of the uncanny valley is that the character is not physically flawed at all. The revulsion stems subconsciously from intangible differences, and the other characters would not be able to explain it.

The musical can be called “Uncanny!”

How about an artificial intelligence (either spontaneous, or developed by humans intentionally) being given a body so that it can interact with the world? Our current state of the art seems to be a Japanese robot lady that looks at the world with dead eyes; something like that wandering around on the streets would definitely creep folks out, but at the same time, would be a subject of sympathy in a film.

You could modify the StarTrek TNG storyline when the computer made a Moriarty that could beat Data’s Sherlock Holmes in the Holodeck. Basically, there is holodeck type theme park with real people interacting with CG characters, landscapes, etc. Then, your hero becomes self-aware and wants to be treated as a real human because he falls in love with a human. So, he hacks into the main computer, re-programs it, and tricks the humans into thinking they left the virtual world, except he goes along with them. Thus, he now becomes subject to the uncanny valley concept.

After a disfiguring accident, a top actor turns to CGI to keep his career and continue working on his opus (his Forrest Gump or Brokeback Mountain or something), which has just begun filming. After millions upon millions of dollars go into the film, it is released. Audiences find his visual perfection on screen to be creepy, and the film is a flop for no good reason except that 5% uncanny valley into which the headliner has fallen. He even makes appearances on Ellen, Letterman, and at various red carpet events with CGI covering his marred face, and nobody notices except for the creepy crawly feeling they get. Over the years, tabloids report plastic surgery and anti-aging techniques he might be using, as the eternally youthful actor inexplicably descends through B and C movies right down into backyard pornography.

I actually know somebody who is very awkward and it never feels like you are on the same page when talking to him. His skin is really pulled back, sorta like “Data” in Star Trek.

I think you could just cast somebody like that. Maybe they aren’t even CG.

Well done, you’ve written AI.

How about if it’s set in a time where 100% human similarity has been achieved, but older-but-still-sentient “CGIs” (for lack of a better term) are kept around due to laws created to protect artificial sentient beings. Both humans and newer CGIs have a revulsion, but maybe something like only humans want to maintain the laws to protect older CGIs (or maybe the other-way around?).

Sounds quite a bit like the movie AI.

your story sounds similar to that of “Flatland: A Romance Of Many Dimensions.” It’s an intriguing tale of the heirarchy of 2 dimensional geometric shapes and a sphere from the 3rd dimension.


It’s like an inside-out twist on TRON.

It reminds me a little (but just a little) of Robin Williams as an out-of-focus actor in Woody Allen’s Deconstructing Harry.

wasn’t that part of the original Matrix movie? prior iterations of the virtual reality were too pleasant, not gritty enough.

And then the twist comes at the end—no one accepts the main character because he’s REAL in a CGI world.

I think the nearest match for an existing story is Asimov’s ‘Bicentennial Man’, which uses increasingly humaniform robotics rather than CG and was written before the phrase Uncanny Valley was invented.

The classic 1977 Doctor Who story ‘Robots of Death’ has a condition called robophobia attributed to robots’ inhuman body language. Sufferers are convinced they are surrounded by walking corpses.

Or how about the reverse? Kind of like “I Am Legend” meets “Toy Story”. Everything exists as an avatar and the ‘normal human’ is the uncanny part, making all the locals uncomfortable. He thinks they’re abominable, but he’s the abomination (yeah, majority rule).

When a classic toon couple have a CGI child, the reason is obvious: the wife had an affair with a programmer! ;-)

Silly dialog idea: Someone explains something they consider obvious, and ends the explanation with “See?” Another character, who is not convinced, rolls his eyes and exclaims “Gee!”, whereupon our hero hesitantly adds “I…”

So, if I make a short film using this concept you wouldn’t mind would ya?