CG Animation

Alita: Battle Angel and the Uncanny Valley

Last weekend, a trailer dropped for a movie called Alita: Battle AngelDirected by Robert Rodriguez, and written and produced by James Cameron,  the movie uses the manga Battle Angel Alita as source material. It focuses on a young cyborg who must, according to iMDB, "discover the truth of who she is and her fight to change the world." The trailer generated a bit of buzz... but not necessarily for an enviable reason. While some viewers did say that they were impressed, many were struck by one feature in particular: Alita's eyes.

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Alita's character is brought to life using computer-generated imagery, and the most striking features about her aren't her cybernetic limbs, but the enlarged eyes. Comments have ranged from humorous to outright critical, and several bring up a very important principle of animation: the uncanny valley.

What exactly is the uncanny valley? It's a trick that lies at the intersection of art and human psychology. The best example involves robots: imagine an industrial robot, the mechanical arm that builds cars. It does not appear very human, and so you may not be as attached. But let's add more human features, maybe something like WALL-E or Short Circuit's Johnny Five. You begin to build more of an emotional connection with it. Now make the robot even more humanoid, something like C-3PO from Star Wars. Now he's a real character, a person in his own right, that you would be even more invested in. In general, the more human-ish an object appears, the more we will connect with it.

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But there is a drastic exception to this rule. As an object draws near full human likeness, it enters into the "uncanny valley." It's a point where the object appears almost completely human, but not quite fully there. The connection suddenly becomes revulsion, and people may be repelled away from the object. There are competing explanations for the phenomenon. Some say it's an unconscious physical repulsion from a "human" that appears to be ill or sickly. Others argue it's a perceived threat to human identity. Whatever the cause though, the uncanny valley has implications not just for robotic designers, but even more so for digital artists.

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Computer imagery has developed by leaps and bounds, and we are now nearing the capability to replicate humans on screen. Such an act always has the inherent danger of falling into the uncanny valley though, and undermining the whole effect. Audiences do respond to that, but it isn't always a liability. Sometimes the uncanny valley can be exploited if you WANT to make a character disturbing and unsettling. Case in point, King Ramses from Courage the Cowardly DogAnyone around the age of 20 can testify that he was one of the most truly terrifying villains in cartoons. 

Of course, most of the time the uncanny valley is accidental, and it's plagued digital artists for decades. One excellent example is Tin Toy, a 1988 Pixar short that features a baby that... well, doesn't look or move like any baby I know of! The 2004 movie The Polar Express also faced troubles with its human characters. It was the first film shot entirely on a motion-capture stage, so of course there were some rough edges.  Mars Needs Moms faced similar troubles, and more recently Rogue One caught some flak for their CGI representation of General Tarkin. 

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Which leads us back to Alita. The attempt seems to be to recreate the well-known Japanese style of large eyes. Robert Rodriguez confirmed this in an interview with Empire, where he said they wanted "to create a photo-realistic version of the manga eyes that we're so accustomed to seeing." He added that "When it gets to the emotional scenes it's really uncanny and striking." So far fans seem to be split: some are saying that the uncanny valley might fit the story of an android struggling to fit into a human society. Others say that she should look like the other humans, given the manga's style. A lot comes down to the writing of the movie and how it's handled, and we won't see that until July. One thing for sure though, is that everyone's going to be paying attention to those big ol' eyes.

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Today's Animated Movies are Addressing the World's Larger Issues

Underneath the humor and cute animated characters in today's top Pixar and Disney Movies, we've seen a trend: these top box office films are also addressing some big issues. It's interesting to think about how these underlying messages may be subconsciously persuading us to think differently about some of the world's large issues. Today we're going to take a look at two top animated films that had prominent underlying messages and also look at how nonprofits may use animated films to raise awareness. 

Inside Out

While this movie tells a cute story about how Riley's emotions changed her life when they left their post at the "control center" inside of her brain, it also addresses mental health and how depression can affect someone's life very quickly. This film looks at the variety of emotions that a young girl might experience while growing up and also addresses the importance of talking about your feelings. It reminds us that's it's okay to feel emotional sometimes and that being sad is okay. This movie looks to start a conversation in our society about mental health and may even prompt parents to think more about their child's mental well-being.

Zootopia

This movie tells the story of how an adorable bunny proves to the world that she's capable of being a great police officer and solve some of Zootopia's biggest cases. On the surface it looks like this movie's message is to follow your dreams and that you can do anything you put your mind to. The underlying message is much deeper; throughout the movie you see multiple political references as well as examples of racial profiling and prejudice. An article from Screen Crush discusses how this is Disney's first overtly political movie. 

Unlike the older Disney films that skirted around harsher realities to uphold impractical messages, Zootopia shows a true evolution in the studio’s desire to tell young audiences stories that reflect the political zeitgeist. One classic contrast to Zootopia that reflects how far Disney has moved from outdated stories of divided identities is Disney’s The Fox and the Hound. The 1981 film uses two friends separated by their domesticated roles of the hunter and the hunted, showcasing a world where good and evil share no middle ground. Zootopia challenges that simplistic perspective, suggesting a world with varying degrees of right and wrong morals, one where the prey are just as susceptible to making hurtful assumptions as the predators are to discounting their worth.

The biggest strength of Zootopia is in how it acknowledges all identities are capable of carrying prejudice and wielding judgement, yet the first step toward change is awareness. And now more than ever, Disney is proving how aware it is. Hopefully Zootopia marks the beginning of a new era of bold, socially-conscious animated storytelling.

UNICEF's Unfairy Tales

UNICEF is looking to end discrimination toward child refugees with a series of PSAs called "Unfairy Tales". These short animated films will show the hardships refugee children have to face when leaving to get shelter from Syrian conflict. UNICEF's goal behind the PSAs is to "build empathy and promote kindness". UNICEF will be hosting a private screening of their newest PSA next week in Los Angeles. Below is the first video, which tells the story of 7-year-old Malak as she crosses the Mediterranean in search for safety.

The Take Away

It's important to think about how we, as animators, have the power to change the way the world views certain issues. As an audience, we should look for these underlying messages and be aware of how these studios might be trying to prompt us to think more in depth about what's going on in the world. Have you seen a movie recently that really got you thinking? Leave a comment below! 

2016 Oscar Nominees

We're so excited for the 2016 Oscars this Sunday, February 28th. Take a look at some of the nominees below and let us know which movies you think will take home awards in the categories of Best Animated Feature and Best Animated Short Film! 

Nominees for Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa

Anomalisa is a stop-motion animated film that is centered around the life of an inspirational speaker who meets a woman who shakes up his boring life. This film targets an adult audience and has gotten quite a bit of attention due to how accurately it is able to portray emotions and relate to an adult audience through claymation. This drama film was released by Paramount Pictures and directed by Charlie Kaufman and Duke Johnson.

Boy and The World

This film looks at the world through a young boy's eyes. The young boy, Cuca discovers the beautiful world around him as he goes on an adventure to find his father. The story depicts the contrast between a rural village and the city. During his adventure in the city, Cuca is taken to a beautiful and abstract place. The film is almost completely silent. This movie was created in Brazil and is written, directed, and animated by Alê Abreu. 

Inside Out

A young girl named Riley has to leave her home and move to San Francisco. This movie gives you an inside look at what's going on in Riley's brain by following her emotions joy, anger, fear, disgust, and sadness. This movie is a 3-D computer animated movie which was directed by Pete Docter. This movie was produced by Pixar Animation Studios and released by Walt Disney Pictures. This is a great movie because it addresses the kind of emotions children go through as they grow up and also addresses mental health.

Shaun the Sheep Movie

This stop-motion film follows Shaun and his sheep friends on an action-packed adventure as they take on a big city and try to rescue their farmer. This movie follows a character, Shaun, who was first introduced in the Wallace and Gromit shorts. Shaun The Sheep later became a TV Series and is now a full-length feature film! It is a British film produced by Aardman Animations. 

When Marnie Was There

This is an Anime film which was written and directed by Hiromasa Yonebayashi. This film follows a young girl named Annie and how a new friend, Marnie, changes the way she perceives her life. Annie is able to discover more about her foster parents and the truth about her real family by spending time with Marnie. This movie is based on a novel by Joan G. Robinson and is produced by Studio Ghibli. 


Nominees for Best Animated Short Film

Bear Story

Bear Story is a dark film which follows the life of a lonely bear who has been separated from his family. A bear creates a mechanical diorama and people can peek into the peephole of this mechanical diorama for a coin. The diorama depicts a family who has been separated because the male was taken to the circus. This film is created by the Chilean animation company, Punkrobot. This short actually addresses the way families were torn apart during the Pinochet regime in Chile in the 1970s.

Prologue

Prologue is an animated short film which is the first part of an upcoming feature film. This short is based on the play Lysistrata by Aristophanes, which has to do with women who withhold sexual interactions from men in order to win a war. The storyline revolves around Spartan and Athenian warriors and takes place 2,400 years in the past. A little girl witnesses an intense battle between Athenian and Spartan warriors and goes back to her grandma to seek comfort. 

Sanjay's Super Team

This is a great Pixar short directed by Sanjay Patel. This movie is about a boy who wants to play with his toys and watch TV, but his dad wants him to be quiet and pray with him. Sanjay's imagination runs wild, and gets a new respect for the gods his father is praying to. The inspiration for the film comes from Sanjay's own childhood.

We Can't Live Without Cosmos

This is a dialogue-free short which follows two cosmonaut friends as they train for their mission in space. This short is fun for anyone who is interested in space or ever dreamed of becoming an astronaut. This is an animated short film written and directed by Russian filmmaker Konstantin Bronzit. 

World of Tomorrow

World of Tomorrow is sci-fi short film which was written, directed, produced, animated, and edited by Don Hertzfeld! This film follows a young girl, Emily. A clone of Emily from the future walks Emily through her life and helps her make decisions. The film has already won 42 awards, will the Oscars be it's 43rd? 

Which movies do you think will take home awards? Leave a comment below! Don't forget to tune in to the Oscars this Sunday! 

The Ten Animated Films We’re Most Looking Forward to in 2016

This year boasts a large amount of animated film releases from major studios. In fact, there are 167 animated films listed on IMDB to be released in 2016. These are the ten films we’re most looking forward to within the coming year, in order of release date.