Uncanny Valley

Uncanny Valley

Written by Elakkiya Prabaharan
Illustrated by Prima Zhao
When the film adaption of Cats, a famous musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber, was released last year, it was met with overwhelmingly negative reviews and no small amount of mockery on social media. The film used a combination of live-action cinema and Computer-Generated Imagery (CGI) to bring the characters into fruition so that the cats in the movie blend together the actors’ faces with feline characteristics. However, instead of being impressed, many reviews described the movie as “horrendous”, its images “disturbing” and “uncanny”.

The unsettling feeling you experience while watching this film (if you dared to watch it) is something you’ve probably felt at one time or another when watching an animated video that tries to make its characters as human-like as possible. This psychological phenomenon is called “uncanny valley”, a theory that’s been around since the 1970s and coined by Japanese roboticist Mashiro Mori. Essentially, the theory speculates that we experience personal discomfort towards images or animations that try to simulate the human experience realistically. The more and more an animated figure resembles an actual human being, the more our ability to empathize with it increases—until we hit “uncanny valley” and our ability to empathize disappears, only to be replaced with repulsion. Uncanny valley isn’t reserved for just animated films and video games, it can also apply to human-like robots.

Although the theory of uncanny valley has been around for some time, its validity hasn’t actually been tested for empirical evidence, partly due to its subjective nature. Measuring the uncanniness of an anthropomorphic (human-like) animation in a quantifiable manner is incredibly difficult, and it isn’t clear which human characteristics blur the boundary between “real” and “really creepy”. One particular hypothesis, called the categorization difficulty hypothesis, predicts that our uneasy feelings arise from our failure to categorize an animation/robot as human or non-human. Future research aims to develop new methods that will enable us to define the intricacies of human likeness; in other words, what characteristics actually make humans, humans.

Currently, the uncanny valley theory is used by animators and roboticists as a guide to avoid creepiness in their work. In early animations, animators would exaggerate human features, which has the opposing effect of making their characters seem more realistic. An example of this can be seen when comparing the animated and live-action versions of Disney’s The Lion King. In the 1993 animated film, the lions are drawn with expressive eyes, which enables the animators to convey a wide range of emotions. The live-action remake, however, leaves viewers feeling unsettled because the lions’ emotions can be heard in their speech, but their faces fail to reflect the same. So, the next time you watch an animated movie, try to take note of the ways animators make


  1. https://www-frontiersin-org.myaccess.library.utoronto.ca/articles/10.3389/fpsyg.2017.01738/full
  2. https://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/what-is-the-uncanny-valley
  3. https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/dec/21/cats-review-tom-hooper-taylor-swift-judi-dench-idris-elba-jennifer-hudson-ian-mckellen