Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley
(This article contains very mild spoilers for Star Wars: Rogue One, albeit nothing that hasn't been previously revealed in trailers advertising the film.)
For over 15 years Hollywood has been trying to generate photo-realistic digital characters but often the results were weird, discordant or just plain unsettling. Has Hollywood finally come out of the uncanny valley with Star Wars: Rogue One?
In the ambitiously expansive 2013 science fiction film The Congress, Robin Wright (playing a famous fictional actress named Robin Wright) is an actress who agrees to sell a digitized version of herself under the contractual proviso that she never acts again. In this near-future world, performers can be wholly and photo-realistically computer generated, meaning a simple day spent in an image scanner can result in an eternity of films being constructed with their likeness.
What was mildly realistic three years ago in The Congress has suddenly become frighteningly prophetic in 2016 with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story stepping further into the territory of digital reincarnation than any film before it. Amongst other unexpected digital constructions, the new film brings Peter Cushing's character from the original 1977 film back to life and turns the experience of watching the film into a deep dive through the uncanny valley. But after 15 years has Hollywood finally made it to the other side?
The uncanny valley
Developed by a Japanese robotics professor in 1970, the concept of the uncanny valley posits that as the appearance of robots become more human-like, our emotional responses to those robots grow more positive until a point when the robots become so life-like that our response to them is one of discomfort and revulsion. As the, now famous, graph below illustrates there is a big dip in our response to a life-like robot as it progresses towards becoming indistinguishable from humans.
This dip is referred to as the uncanny valley – a space where an artificially generated image becomes so close to life-like that it results in a repulsive disconnected response from the viewer. As digital imaging technology evolved over the past 20 years Hollywood has been perilously circling this uncanny valley, frequently presenting us with semi-photorealistic characters resulting in uneasy audience responses.
The Hollywood experiment
Hollywood's engagement in this discomforting hyperreal space began in 2001 with the first computer generated attempt at a photorealistic film, Final Fantasy: The Spirit Within. From 2004 Robert Zemeckis took the baton and wholeheartedly leapt into the uncanny with a series of animated motion capture experiments starting with The Polar Express then moving onto Beowulf and A Christmas Carol, which came in 2009 and consequently populated our nightmares with its images of a chameleon-like Jim Carrey.
After The Curious Case of Benjamin Button served up a creepy digitally de-aged impression of a youthful Brad Pitt in 2008, we saw several films try this technique with varying degrees of failure. A young, weird Jeff Bridges leapt onto our screen in Tron Legacy and most recently we saw a disturbingly wooden recreation of 1980s Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Genysis (although it could be argued that "disturbingly wooden" is a pretty accurate representation of the real Schwarzenegger).
Technology kept progressing and by the mid 2010s Hollywood was well and truly embedded in the uncanny valley, constantly trying new techniques but always creating strange and discordant results. Marvel has recently dipped its toe into these pixilated waters on a couple of occasions with a mild degree of success. In Ant-Man we saw a dramatically de-aged Wall Street-era Michael Douglas appear like magic in the opening scenes and then in Captain America: Civil War a young Robert Downey Jr sprung up on the screen to remind us how old he actually is.
Both of these films had the luxury of not only having the real actors available to stand in for the initial shoots, allowing their real voices to be recorded and motion capture techniques to trace their facial gestures, but there was also the ability to refer to their large body of 1980s films as visual templates.
The secret world of visual cosmetics
These forms of "de-aging" techniques are much more prominent in Hollywood film than many realize. In fact, there are whole companies devoted to more subtle digital imaging tasked with removing wrinkles, slimming actors, or photoshopping up an actor's abs for that topless scene. Dubbed "beauty work" or "visual cosmetics," these techniques have been pioneered by Los Angeles FX outfit, Lola Visual Effects. The company has been operating since 2004, but its biggest known work didn't come until 2008 when it delivered Brad Pitt's de-aging effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. For the most part, Lola's work exists in an unseen and unspoken world of Hollywood trickery. They come in and touch up actors and actresses as part of a post-production process that is almost standard operating procedure these days.
In a 2014 interview with Mashable, Claus Hansen, a beauty-work tradesman for Method Studios could only reveal, "Nobody looks like what you see on TV and in the movies. Everybody is altered." In an age of non-disclosure agreements and big-time studio lawyers, no one will name names. The only clues to whether a film has had this kind of post-production tinkering is the names of Method Studios or Lola VFX deep in the credits, but odds are that it happens more often than not.
These light visual tinkerings are clear indications that Hollywood can make it to the other side of the uncanny valley when doing slight digital touch ups, but is it possible to get out of this eerie representational void when digitally reincarnating actors who have passed away?
When Paul Walker tragically died in 2013 in the middle of production of Furious 7, Universal shut down production to work out what to do with its half-shot film. The filmmakers ultimately ended up reworking the story and hiring Walker's brothers as stand-ins to shoot some of his remaining scenes. CGI outfit Weta Digital was then brought in to create a computer generated simulacrum of Walker to imprint over the stand-ins' faces.
The final results were successful, if slightly discomforting, yet the uncanny valley quotient was high. Perhaps our knowledge of Walker's demise and awareness in witnessing a CGI recreation (especially in the film's closing scenes) directly affected our ability to take the images on face value?
Star Wars Rogue One has boldly doubled down on digital reincarnation further than any film we've seen to date. The narrative is set immediately before the events that unfolded in 1977's Star Wars: A New Hope and the filmmakers were faced with a stark choice. Do they ignore the characters that we the audience know are present in that world, or do they try to use digital technology to bring these familiar faces to life?
The biggest gambit of the film is the incorporation of Peter Cushing's character Grand Moff Tarkin. Cushing passed away in 1994 so there was no option for the filmmakers to even rely on his original voice to record the lines. The costly visual effect is the film's most successful or controversial gamble depending on your personal reaction to seeing this character reappear on the big screen almost 40 years after the original film.
The boldness of the move by Rogue One director Gareth Edwards and his visual effects team is undeniable. Tarkin becomes a surprisingly prominent character in the film, engaging in several long and detailed conversational scenes with Ben Mendehlson's Director Krennic. There are no attempts to hide the digital seams in the way the film approaches Tarkin's character, and after an initial silhouetted reveal we get to stare at this computer generated apparition and judge for ourselves. It's a stunningly confronting moment to be so personally thrust into the uncanny valley, for we know that not only is Peter Cushing, the actor long passed away, but we are seeing a character from 40 years ago appear exactly as he appeared in our nostalgic memories.
Star Wars Rogue One lays down the subjective gauntlet. It's entirely up to the individual whether they come out the other side of the valley or not, but there is no fence-sitting here. In the experience of this writer, the film was unable to transcend the artifice of the recreation. The digital face was a perfect summation of the uncanny valley, and that is directly related to the accuracy of the execution. This was as close to a perfect photo-realistic reincarnation as we have ever seen and that is exactly why it felt so jarringly discomfiting. There is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.
The question that Rogue One's impressive technical achievement raises is if we ever could traverse the uncanny valley with familiar faces. We are so close to being able to create photo-realistic CGI characters, but is the hurdle of familiarity unsurpassable? If we know these actors, and have grown up watching them age across numerous films, would we ever be able to accept their pixelated reappearances? If an actor has passed away could we ever believe a CGI replicant, regardless of the digital accuracy?
Rogue One is Hollywood's greatest attempt yet at traversing the uncanny valley, but the answer is now in our, the audience's, hands. Are we going to eventually normalize and accept seeing long-dead faces appearing on our screens, or younger versions of familiar faces talking to us as if through a time-warped form of Skype?