John Singer Sargent once said, “A portrait is a picture with something wrong with the mouth.” You try to make a picture exactly like someone, but something smells “off.” A few days ago I read a nice piece by Clive Thompson about the related concept of Uncanny Valley and computer games.
The Uncanny Valley theory goes like this: suppose you want to render a human face, and you have a magic machine to help you. This machine has a knob on it that goes from “cartoon” to “photo-realistic.” As you turn the knob up toward realistic, the aesthetic effect on the viewer does something surprising. Instead of looking more and more familiar as it gets more photorealistic, at some point it starts to look downright disturbing. It almost looks like a person, but something’s gone wrong. In fact, it resembles a zombie-like abomination. This is the bottom of the Uncanny Valley.
The steep plunge from cute to creepy is something you’d think most game designers would like to avoid, but in fact there are some beautiful (as in awful) examples of it in action in recent games. Look at this, if you dare, and ask yourself how this got into a shipping product. Or maybe they actually want the Mary Smith character to look like a bucktoothed female impersonator doing Cher. If so, they could have had a lot more fun with it. At any rate, this video clip is the gold standard for the Uncanny Valley.
As the Italians say, make it realistic, ma non troppo.