Of Avatar, the Future of Animation, & Uncanny Valleys

Do you remember Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within? You know, that movie with the computer animated people and glowy spirits? I remember thinking when I saw Spirits Within that there was something missing as far as the emotion of the characters and the makeup of their world, though I enjoyed the movie on its own. It was all very shiny and glowy, yes, but there was just the slightest lack of true emotion thanks to the boundaries of technology at the time. They hadn’t quite crossed the uncanny valley. Hair was still clumpy and unnaturally flowing, facial muscles had the expression capabilities of plasticine puppets.

And then James Cameron’s Avatar (not to be confused with Avatar: The Last Airbender) came along. Rather than parroting other reviews, I will say this. I enjoyed it much and did not go in expecting an overly impressive plot. I went for sweeping bio-luminescent vistas and the fascinating blue tribal cat people. It is not a triumph of storytelling, but rather of animation. When the main character is walking in his Avatar body feeling the soil between his toes for the first time without the aid of a wheelchair, I could feel that sense of euphoria. I could see the smile lines on Jake Sully’s face, the intake of breath, the natural gorgeous flowing hair that didn’t look stuck on like a texture mesh hat.

For as complicated as human emotions are, subtlety is key in making an animated character, and yes even works of art, feel real to us. Emotions are not merely the smoldering of someone’s eyes with lust/love/greed/anger, but a combination of subtle movements, body language, posture, breaths, and the numerous tiny muscles in the face that combine to form a smile, a catlike hiss, or the smothering tension of someone overwhelmed by hatred and grief.

I came out of the movie wondering if some day I might be able to see my own stories and characters alive in animation. I’ve certainly thought this before, but never had any faith that animation could make them look tangible and human so much so that I could reach out and touch them instead of merely think of them as moving caricatures on a 3D animated canvas. (2D animation is a whole other other discussion on its own).

This movie also represents a leap in respect for the computer animated method of film making, in my opinion. Where once it may have been considered a fantastical fancy for children’s entertainment, or merely the canvas for Frodo and Sam to journey through, now it is something viable, monetarily and for serious storytelling. Computer animation can be main stage and main actors for a movie rather than merely pretty background elements or distant cg doubles engaged in minor background activities or stunts too dangerous for the real actors or stuntmen.

I, for one, am looking forward to where this style of storytelling and animation takes us next!

Image from avatarmovie.com

12 comments

  1. Erika Harm says:

    You said /perfectly/ what I thought about it – I didn’t expect an awesome story, it was just two and a half hours of pretty.

    My folks didn’t care for it much, and the appreciation for how TOTALLY impressive the animation was is totally lost on them. They really broke a barrier with this, getting that flexibility and emotional nuance in the faces to really be believable.

    I’m looking forward to… Battle Angel Alita! ūüėÄ

  2. Alessandra says:

    I think they used real prosthetic makeup as well combined with technology, because I read Sam Worthington, the main actor, had some serious breakout from the makeup in the movie…so I think it’s quite awesome to use this “mixed media” sort of factor in a movie…it makes everything natural, cause the actors are actually in there…and then technology makes it all smoother…

  3. Jayleen "Guruubii" Weaver says:

    I ‘ve not seen it yet. I went to see princess and the frog. Its funny the feelings you described i felt with P&F. The previews were for some 3d movies the cartoony ones we are over saturated with and the deadness of them just made me want to cry, the the movie came on and jeri and I literally teared up at the exquisiteness of the animation.
    seeing NEW 2d animation… I almost forgot how amazing it could be to see cartoons be alive, really ALIVE… I cried.

    I do believe that Avatar has taken a huge leap in technology and I respect that they recognized the limitations and blended live action as well. theres nothing worse than using a medium like CGI and doing things it cant really do yet, just because its there.
    It’s definitely raised the bar and i really look forward to seeing the movie when I can.

    from what I’ve read Disney is working in rapunzel in 3d right now basing it off an oil painting and I’ve seen a screen shot or 2 and from the look of it, that type of 3d (cartoony) is also taking a leap ahead.

    Finally people are moving out of the 3d comfort zone and treating it like a TOOL, and trying to master it instead of treating it like a toy that makes money.

    Life is good!

  4. Hayley E. Lavik says:

    It’s funny, I would almost say they’ve finally gotten past CG as random shiny pretties to throw around on a big screen, and started using it as a real tool…. except oh my god the shiny prettiness of it all XD

    I absolutely agree with your take on it, though. The level of detail and realism really impressed me, and the living quality of it all, as compared to the plastic, soulless attempts of years past. I’m quite excited to see what more people might attempt, while also remembering the value of actual actors, etc. Now I’d love to see a blend of astounding visuals with groundbreaking storytelling!

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  6. Angela Sasser says:

    I’m not sure about the prosthetics, but I wouldn’t be surprised if they did at some points in the film. All the behind the scenes specials I’ve seen on TV show the actors in motion capture suits with a camera mounted in front of their faces to record their facial features for animator reference as they’re moving. There was also a large majority of green screen work. Perhaps he broke out from having the body suit and sensors stuck to him?

    Either way, I thought it was a pleasure to see a movie brave enough to combine real figures with cg figures while not looking out of place with the 3D elements.

  7. Angela Sasser says:

    Ah yes I’ve seen the odd concept art here and there of Rapunzel. I still have to fight with the purist in me who prefers a darker tale, but I’m liking what I see of the color palette and the mood. I saw Princess and the Frog too and it was pretty entertaining and cute, though I still prefer darker Disney. It was just so refreshing to see them coming back to complete hand drawn animation! I hope they’ll stick to their promise of a hand drawn film every two years as that would be GREAT!

    All that would make the new 3D animation processes perfect would be that they stop dragging their feet as far as the scriptwriting and inspire us in both story AND animation. Avatar didn’t have a terrible story, but it definitely could have been better for the half a billion dollars they spent on it. Still it’s enjoyable and well paced. I was entertained throughout the entire 2.5 hours of it.

    I’d be curious to know your thoughts on it after you see it.

  8. Angela Sasser says:

    haha yes it was indeed shiny and pretty, but what felt impressive to me is that main characters in the plot were taken seriously as computer animated actors instead of being silly background sidekicks, like Jar Jar Binks, or merely bg elements subordinate to real actors.

    I definitely can’t wait to see where they go with this style of storytelling presentation. A previous commenter mentioned Battle Angel Alita. I’m personally looking forward to Ghost in the Shell (which apparently Speilberg has taken on!) I can see many anime films making it to the big screen now that they have the capabilities to portray them better.

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