CG artists look for love in 'valley'

Panel: Innovation needed to make characters real

SAN DIEGO -- Realistic movement is a key element to overcoming the "uncanny valley" in computer-generated characters, industry leaders said Tuesday at Siggraph, the international computer graphics confab taking place this week.

The uncanny valley is a hypothesis that describes the human response to nonhuman agents. It suggests that as CG characters get close to being human, if they are not quite right, the response from the viewer shifts from empathy to repulsion. The hypothesis originally was used to describe robots but recently has become a popular way of describing the emotional responses to computer-animated agents in movies and video games. With all the CG character work being done in Hollywood, it has become a high-stakes concern.

"Given where the industry is at and how many characters we are being asked to create ... motion capture is a fact of life," Weta Digital's Joe Letteri said of the capture technique now frequently linked to CG character development. He was a VFX supervisor on Peter Jackson's "King Kong" and the second and third films in the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy.

Letteri said that more innovation in technology and technique is needed.

Speaking during a panel Tuesday, he suggested that motion capture alone is not the way to overcome the issue. "We found you can't really rely 100% on what you capture. ... There are certain things you need to sharpen up, there are certain things you need to emphasize," he said.

"Important things to getting a convincing performance was getting the speed of movement to the eyes -- the subtle responses -- and also the shape of the mouth," he said. "It seems like particular attention to the corners of the month is an easy place to get it wrong because there is so much compression and tension there."

He added that his team and others in the industry are working to better understand this area.

"Is it in the capture itself? Is it the process of translating it? We have some films under way (like James Cameron's 'Avatar') where we are exploring these techniques, and I know that's happening at several other places now," Letteri said. "That seems to be where the feature industry is going because there's so much character work being done."

On the Siggraph exhibition floor, delegates weighed in on additional issues surrounding the uncanny valley, particularly discussing tools for 3-D modeling and animation.

Industrial Light + Magic VFX supervisor John Knoll ("Pirates of the Caribbean" trilogy) said that "one of the things that is probably the furthest behind is really good tools for doing really high-quality, detailed animation. Right now it's kind of unwieldy."

Others agreed.

"The facial animation needs the most work," ILM animation supervisor Hal Hickel added.

Michel Besner, product management for Autodesk's Media & Entertainment division 3-D product portfolio, said there are other less addressed areas for improvement: "Another thing that we don't often talk about is camera. Any good CG or bad CG is often defined by the camera animation." He related that Autodesk is working on new software tools to improve the process.

Others point out that this laborious process needs to be manageable for a film production schedule. Stephen Regelous, founder of Massive Software -- maker of the Massive artificial intelligence-driven animation system -- said: "There is so much going on in a hero performance to make it believable. Unless some of that is automated, you are not going to move forward in achieving realistic performances."

Ultimately, industry pros agree that overcoming the uncanny valley is about a marriage of science and art.

"It still has to go into the hands of artists," said Barry Weiss, senior vp animation production at Sony Pictures Imageworks. "Ultimately, it's how you design it that keeps you out of the valley."