Uncanny Valleys

(Originally posted June 4th 2012)

My classes are over until September. Which only means that now I need to plan and create classes, instead of teach them. But being a horrendous procrastinator, I started reading a new book instead –The Uncanny Valley by Lawrence Weschler. I had heard him talking on Bullseye with Jesse Thornand was intrigued by the subject. For those of you who may not know, ‘the uncanny valley’ was a term invented by Japanese robotics professor Masahiro Mori to describe the profound ‘creepiness’ of artificially generated humans – either robots or CGI. His theory is that an artificial face that is (up to) 95% lifelike is compelling. But once it reaches 96% lifelike, the face loses it’s endearing qualities and instead becomes repulsive and threatening. This tiny percentile of change is enough to tip our entire emotional connection to the artificial being. And until that ‘tipping point’ is resolved, the being is trapped in an ‘uncanny valley’ where they no longer look like a human-like robot, but a corpse-like human…

And even though Weschler’s book had been chosen as a distraction from my need to write a syllabus for an acting class, it immediately became the source for it. Because I think actors have always been struggling with the uncanny valley. All actors walk the tightrope between their audience’s repulsion and endearment. After all, what are we all judged against, other than being ‘lifelike’? Notice I don’t say ‘realistic’. At least, not yet. This is an important distinction that will become more important as I get closer to the present. But let’s start with some history

Actors are required to be living proxies for an absent individual. This ‘otherness’ has been emphasized or de-emphasized most obviously with masks. What more elegant solution is there to embodying another person than by wearing their face? If you were Hannibal Lecter saying that last sentence, your skin crawls (The uncanny valley’s ability to turn a human corpse-like can happen purely linguistically!). But actors have done just this for thousands of years. Performers have worn everything from the skulls of animals, to clay renditions of the gods and leather versions of human faces. These masks present an immediate challenge to an actor – namely, that a ‘face’ also needs a body to be believable. If you are wearing a mask of Poseidon, but are only able to shuffle and scratch yourself, you are in danger of creating a riot amongst your audience. Because that would be creating a dis-harmony between what the mask you’re wearing is promising and what your body is delivering. Both need to create a unified character, and to split them is to drop the audience into an “uncanny valley” where the character looks like Poseidon, but moves like an awkward teenager at their first school dance.

What are all the deciding factors, though, that form an audience’s ‘sense’ that there is a unified character of Poseidon in front of them? Because the uncanny valley for a live performance is predicated on many more factors than just your face and body. The writing needs to be recognizable as ‘true’ in some way to the character. The other actor/characters also need to treat you as if you are Poseidon. You probably should dress like him, though that isn’t always important. Actors are often granted ‘proxies’ when performing live : a ‘king’ may only need a foil ring on their head instead of a crown, or may only need to mime their cloak, rather than actually wear one. However, that mime better be ‘believable’ and consistent…

But there’s another factor – the stage itself. The performer is not solely responsible for the perception of the character they play. The audience must contribute their own investment of faith into the whole illusion if we are all actually able to call what you’re doing ‘acting’. And that means the audience’s relationship to the audience will change what they perceive as ‘believable’. If I’m sitting at Epidaurusin Greece with 14, 999 other people, large gestures may be necessary for me to even notice what the actor is doing, let along believe them. However, if I am leaning on the front of the Globe Theatre in London, I may think such gestures “saw the air too much”, as Hamlet advises his players. A medieval pageant may need a mask with a phallic nose to convey my character’s buffoonery, but when I’m in close up with an HD camera such a nose will completely overpower the frame.

As stages change their size and function, the threshold for ‘believability’ changes with it. As you change the audience’s relationship to the character, the actor needs to change their craft to better unify their work to create a ‘believable’ character. Masks went from paint on our faces, to skulls, to large clay structures in outdoor amphitheatersto leather half-masks for the Commedia dell’Arte… and back to paint on our faces. This follows the stage – from fire, to village gathering, to amphitheater to pageant wagon, to outdoor theater to indoor theatre to indoor theatre with artificial lighting. And then to a camera lens. With each shift in live theatre’s venue, the measure of audience believability has changed with it, and so has the actor’s craft. Acoustics change, sightlines alter and expectations of the audience develop. The Greeks went to the theatre once a year for a religious festival, which perhaps accounts for a very different expectation level of their audience compared to Restoration London where you could see a different comedy or tragedy every night of the week.

So the threshold for an audience’s repulsion to an actor shifts with their proximity to them. This must also be true for humanoid robots – if you are a great distance from a robot, the details of their construction are less affecting than their ability to execute their functions (just like an actor, by the way…). The problem of the uncanny valley occurs as we get closer to them. Exactly what I think has become the problem with our relationship to some actors – they are fine at ‘function’, but when we get closer, their work appears ‘artificial’ and ultimately inhuman.

Much is made of the difference between acting on stage versus on camera. Actors themselves are constantly in a state of flux over the specifics. I have known actors who ruthlessly mock a fellow actor in a live show about their ‘over-the-top’ delivery of a line. And yet, those same mocking actors proceed to employ very similar histrionics in their own performance. I suspect this is because of their proximity to the mocked actor – they are on stage with them, and not far off in the audience. When these mocking actors need to deliver their own lines, however, they ‘pitch’ their performance to an imaginary distant member of the audience, and temper the ‘size’ of their performance for them. Again – the proximity of the audience to the performer affects how believable they are.

Now imagine a world where a device is created that immediately turns someone into a performer, even if they don’t ask to be. Simply switching it one and pointing it at somebody causes others to gaze at them and their behavior. Let’s call this ‘the camera’. Now imagine a world where there are so many of these ‘cameras’ that they have erased the divide between the performer and the audience. Because there are so many of them, and what they record is so prolific to the culture that everyone is ‘performing’ and ‘audience-ing’ all of the time. So cameras are not so much a device, but instead a kind of ‘schemer’ (to quote Golan Levin) across the landscape and all kinds of performances, at different scales, are simultaneously occurring in front of that schmear. Let’s call this ‘the present day’.

Ask people why they don’t go to the theatre and the answers are sobering : “I can’t understand all those people up there shouting”, “It’s uncomfortable for me, how artificial it is”, “the acting is boring (and even funny) when it is supposed to be sad”. And that’s before we get into why people don’t go to see musicals. Or Opera.

My suspicion is that we have a more profound uncanny valley between actors and their audiences than ever before. And this is because of three things :

  1. Saturation of camera-based storytelling and screen-based media
  2. A ‘skipped generation’ of theatre-goers.
  3. Actor training that rests on a method developed for Victorian theatres and their respective audiences.

If we can agree that as an audience’s relationship to their performers changes their threshold for believability, a camera-based media world that emphasizes close-ups and micro expressions must have altered the audience. We’ve reached a kind of critical breaking point where our visual literacy has developed exponentially, changing our expectations of all those who wish to perform. Even ourselves.