What Would Make An Animated Character Appear “Creepy”?

Realistic animated character that looks creepy.Have you ever stopped to think about animated characters? With the capabilities of graphics these days it’s possible for an animated character to look just like a real person. And then there are still cartoon characters created that look nothing like real people. Have you ever experienced an animated character that “creeped” you out?

Animators have to make constant decisions about how realistic a character should be, and what that even means. Research shows that there is a point where animated characters are not “cute” anymore, and actually can become “creepy”. This point is called the “uncanny valley”.

This semester at the University of Wisconsin, Stevens Point, I worked with a student on an independent study project about the uncanny valley. This blog post is a guest post by the student, Kierstan Leaf, who describes the research study she did this semester:

The Uncanny Valley is the idea that as things, particularly robots and animated characters, become more realistic they eventually hit a point where we determine them to be creepy and nonhuman. This is due to the small inconsistencies that we see within the characters, for example, the skin texture or reflection in the eyes may seem a bit off.  We unconsciously notice these things because these are attributes that we observe daily in our interactions with people.

The Uncanny Valley theory originated from Masahiro Mori, while working with robotics in 1970. He compared the relationship between robots and their “degree of human likeness” (see the references below). Mori noticed that when robots become more lifelike they began to be viewed as being creepy. On the other hand when the robots did not have much human likeness, such as a robot in a factory, the creepy level was very low, if non-existent. 

For this study on the uncanny valley I took images from movies, cartoons, and television shows. I used images that ranged from “less realistic” (in other words, not human-like) to “more realistic”. These images were shown to 58 people to rate on a scale from 1 to 10 where “normal” was at one end and “creepy” at the other. I hypothesized that as the images become more realistic they would be considered creepier. Here’s a short video that summarizes the research shows the images I used, and the results of the study.

 

 

The hypothesis was correct. The more realistic the images were, the more creepy people rated them.

So what does this mean for decisions about animations in design? If  you would like your viewer to fall in love with your character nearly instantaneously, then perhaps you should stick with more cartoonish designs.  If you want your user to be scared of a monster or evil villain, you can push the line of realism and tip your viewer over to the creepy side. Knowing these unconscious reactions exist, you can apply them to your projects.

References: 

Mori, Masahiro. The Uncanny Valley. Trans. Karl F. MacDorman and Norri Kageki. IEEE Spectrum, 2012. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://spectrum.ieee.org/automaton/robotics/humanoids/the-uncanny-valley>. 

Karl F. MacDorman. Exploring the Uncanny Valley. Web. 11 Dec. 2014. <http://experiment.informatics.iupui.edu>.

What do you think? What do you think makes animated characters cross into the “creepy” realm?

If you have questions for Kierstan you can reach her at    kleaf716@uwsp.edu