Uncanny Charlie

August 18, 2012

The subway system in Boston has a mascot named “Charlie”, a cartoon character who rides the train and reminds people to use the “Charlie Card”. With the exception of his face, he looks like a normal airbrushed graphic of a guy with a hat. But his face? Uh, it’s f’d up.

In case you don’t know yet about the Uncanny Valley, it refers to a graph devised by a Japanese robot maker. The graph shows typical reactions to human likeness in robots and other simulations. The more realistic the robot (or computer generated character) the more CREEPY it becomes….

..until it is so utterly realistic that you are fooled, and you respond to it as if it were a living human. But watch out. If the eyes do something wacky or scary, or if something else reveals the fact that it is just an animated corpse…DOWN you fall…. into the valley.

Anyway, I have a theory about the uncanny valley: it is just a specific example of a more general phenomenon that occurs when incompatible levels of realism are juxtaposed in a single viewing experience. So for instance, an animated film in which the character motions are realistic – but their faces are abstract – can be creepy. How about a computer animation in which the rendering is super-realistic, but the motions are stiff and artificial? Creepola. A cartoon character where one aspect is stylized and other aspects are realistic looks…not right. That’s Charlie’s issue.

Stylized faces are everywhere:

But when an artist takes a stylized line-drawn graphic of a face and renders it with shading, I consider this to be a visual language blunder. The exception to this rule of thumb is demonstrated by artists who purposefully juxtapose styles and levels of realism, for artistic impact, such as the post-modern painter David Salle.

The subject of levels of realism and accessibility in graphic design is covered in McCloud’s Understanding Comics. The image-reading eyebrain can adjust its zone of suspension of disbelief to accommodate a particular level of stylism/realism. But in general, it cannot easily handle having that zone bifurcated.

Charlie either needs a face transplant to match his jacket and hat, or else he needs to start wearing f’d-up clothes to match his f’d-up face.