On The Hobbit, the Uncanny Valley, and what it means for 3D

It’s great when terms from your computer science education come up in day to day life. Tonight, I saw The Hobbit for the first time. I typically despise 3D films – I find the effect detracts from any cinematic creativity, distracts from screenplay and creates a novelty crutch for film makers to lean on. The Hobbit is the first 3D film I’ve ever seen that doesn’t suffer from this phenomenon.

The visuals in The Hobbit are stunning. Set in New Zealand, the epic scenery comes as no surprise – but just how much the 3D format adds to this enjoyment has to be seen to be appreciated. I’ve read that the 48fps format makes 3D more immersive and engaging, and having seen it first hand, for me this seems to be the making of 3D as a medium.

For those of you already familiar with the concept of 48fps movies, skip a paragraph – here’s what it means in layman’s terms:
Regular films are shown in 24 fps, or ‘frames per second’ – that is, 24 still images packed into every second make up the movie. The Hobbit is the first move to be shot and projected (in good cinemas..) at 48fps – double the normal speed. This difference is still perceivable to the human eye.

The vast majority of scenes in The Hobbit look spectacular. Cameras panning through scenery, orc-filled battlefields and vast citadels build into cliffs all prove incredibly immersive in 48fps 3D.
What’s interesting to observe is how the more familiar scenes look ‘a little off’. Pressing through a busteling marketplace, walking along a grassy path, a character standing in the doorway – none of it seems quite right.

But what’s happening here? Why do some scenes look so incredibly immersive and real, and some just look – well, they look plain uncanny.
Enter the “uncanny valley”. I first came across this term in the context of computer animation, but I think the theory also applies here.

uncanny valley

The Uncanny Valley applied to some recent 3D releases

The Uncanny Valley is the trough that exists where a scene is so close to human likeness, or in this case ‘real life’ likeness, that it appears unrealistic. It’s so close it’s uncanny, and our level of trust in the scene decreases, along with our affinity. This cliff which affinity falls off is the Uncanny Valley.

The reason action packed scenes and panning scenery all retain their authenticity is these scenes are unfamiliar to us. I’ve never encountered a battlefield of orcs, and I’ve never flown across the landscape hugging the ground in a helicopter. We have no prior experience which tells what these scenarios should look like.

It’s only when we see something familiar – the crowded marketplace, a person walking through a forest, all these scenes we’ve experienced frequently first hand, that we begin to feel uncomfortable.

The Hobbit in 3D can best be described as the reptile cabinet at the zoo. There’s clearly a large 2D plane which distorts our viewport, but the cinema screen has an almost translucent quality. Cinema has almost transcended this 3D barrier, and conquering the Uncanny Valley is the last remaining obstacle.

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  • Rob

    Saw this in 3D and HFR yesterday afternoon. Hated it and left at 1:45 and for more reasons than finding the movie boring in itself.

    This was the first 3D movie I ever saw in theaters. It’s still distracting and I vow I will not bother to look one up again. I do believe that 3D can add some subtle effects which could add to a movie but I don’t think any production company would be interested in the money and effort required for 3D just for some subtle effects.

    HFR did not bother me as much but it looked like TV video and was inconsistent. Close ups looked like afternoon soap operas while wide shots looked closer to current projections. The integration of graphic effects is still OK to poor at best and sometimes I could tell when the actors were walking in front of a green screen.

    Editing and transporting movies is better with digital but film always gives you the best image. I wish the movie industry switched to 70mm for everything and somehow forced theaters to take better care of the product.

    • Cian Clarke

      Have to say, despite what the blog post makes it sound like, I thoroughly enjoyed the film & had to desire to leave. Certainly see what you mean by looking like TV video. I think I’ve like to see a few more HFR films before I decide one way or the other… I’d at least like to see The Hobbit in 24fps 2D as a comparison

  • http://www.berggreens.dk Carsten Berggreen

    as a parttime gamedeveloper I think the problem with modern 3D is that the more close we come to our normal brain/eye speed, the less frame we imagine seeing ourselfs (based on our experience of movements), so these “real movies/games” has to move 100% realistic if we arent going to spot the difference. back in old cartoon and retro games we build the missing animations with our own brain based on memory/imagination. now we just have to sit back and observe, so now we have enough “cpu time” left to focus on wrong details…

    • Cian Clarke

      “CPU Time” – I like that! :D

  • Andreas

    Really nice post, and interesting observations too.
    Enjoyed every minute of it.

    Found you through Hackernews.

    • Cian Clarke

      Thanks for reading, Andreas!

  • Andreas

    Really nice post, and interesting observations too.
    Enjoyed every minute of it.

    Found you through Hackernews.

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  • http://www-scf.usc.edu/~hsuanyup/ Hsuan-Yueh Peng

    I just searched some information about uncanny valley, then found your website. :D
    Do you think is there any relation between Uncanny Valley and Turing test?