Why Do Computer-animated Films Undermine the Cinematic Reality?

As a pioneer in visual effects, the American filmmaker Robert Zemeckis made several attempts to use the ‘performance capture’ technology in his films such as The Polar Express (USA, 2004), Beowulf (USA, 2007) and Mars Needs Moms (USA, 2011). By digitally recording actors’ facial expressions and movements and then applying the computer data into ‘synthespians’, these CGI films intend to create ‘near-identical’ or ‘realistic’ visual breakthroughs for spectators. Nevertheless, some critical reviews surrounding these films define this technological challenge as ‘failure’ for delivering uncomfortable creepiness, namely ‘photoreal but not real, lifelike but not living’ (Aldred, 2011).

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Within academia, ‘the uncanny valley’ paradox proposed by Roboticist Masahiro Mori is widely perceived as the main problem of this kind of films. Prince (2011, p.122) concludes that viewers will be trapped into ‘a loss of empathy’ due to the increasing digital photorealistic designs. And this is also the reason why staring at wax statues will discomfort us: they are trying to be humanlike, after all they are not. In addition, the limitations of mocap technology also results in cinematic unreality. In the filming process of The Polar Express, 72 cameras are needed to provide coverage for four actors and their facial and body markers (Desowitz, 2004). However, our face contains 53 muscles and facial movements are highly complicated to be exactly captured, let alone the subtle expression in one’s eyes. This is also the reason why viewers always have the sense of vacancy and lifelessness on those computer-animated characters.


However, digital technology develops constantly and rapidly. Last year,  Kingsglaive: Final Fantasy XV (Japan, 2016) brought us an impressive visual feast of CGI films (well…at least for me it is). In the director’s interview, he mentions that in this film, a technology called ‘Facial Rig’ is used to capture the subtle variation of facial expressions. This technology could combine the expertise of psychology and anatomy to represent facial details. He also states that this advanced technology might be applied into robots. It could be expected that whether this technological development will alter the ‘unrealistic’ situation of this sort of films.

Written by Bingjie ZHAI (Lee)


Aldred, J., 2006. “All aboard the polar express: a ‘playful’change of address in the computer-generated blockbuster”. Animation, 1(2), 153-172.

Desowitz, B., 2004. All Aboard the CG ‘Polar Express’. Available at: <http://www.awn.com/vfxworld/all-aboard-cg-polar-express&gt; [Accessed: March 19, 2017].

Prince, S., 2011. Digital Visual Effects in Cinema: The seduction of reality. Rutgers University Press: New York.

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