Why human beings in computer animated movies still don’t look like real humans

Disney’s latest animated movie “Moana” is – once again – a big seller: With a budget of 150 million USD, the box office revenue after one month already beats 500 million. If you take a closer look at the protagonists Moana, Tui or Tala, you’ll notice that they look like cartoon characters but not like real human beeings. On the one hand this is not exceptional as almost every human being in Disney movies looks like a cartoon character. On the other hand, most computer game creators try to design the protagonists as realistic as possible and with modern technology and today’s computer power, it is easily possible to create movies with realistic human beings. So why do animated Disney characters still don’t look like real humans?


The reason for this is the so called Uncanny Valley effect. This phenomenon describes that people find highly abstracted, completely artificial figures more appealing and more acceptable than figures that are increasingly realistic. In other words: There is no linear correlation between anthropomorphism and the empathic reaction of people. The following diagram tries to visualize this:


As you can see, the movie “The Polar Express” is named as an example for the Uncanny Valley effect. This film used a technique called Motion Capture. The actors were filmed first and their representation, mimic and gesture were then transferred to the digital figures.


With a budget of 170 million USD, the movie “only” got a revenue of 300 million which is okay but not extraordinary. Also other animated movies that used Motion Capture (e.g. Tintin) got similar results. The Uncanny Valley effect could be an explanation for these average box office results, even though it’s still a hypothesis and not fully proven.

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