The Incredibles, Polar Express, the Uncanny Valley, Pixar

I’ve stumbled across a little cluster of blog posts and news items about The Incredibles, the latest Pixar movie and Polar Express, the latest Warner Bros movie, starring Tom Hanks in something like five roles. Both of them have come out at pretty much the same time, both of them are fully animated using computer graphics, but one of them is photo-realistic, and one isn’t. Also, one of them is a major hit, and one isn’t.

Comic industry blog The Beat looks at the two different visual approaches, and mentions the Uncanny Valley theory, which basically says that if you get very close to full photorealism, there will be a point where characters suddenly evoke negative emotional reactions. This is one explanation for the relative failures of Final Fantasy: The Movie and, in this case, Polar Express.

The games industry also makes strong use of computer graphics, and there is a definite trend towards photo-realism. We’re not that far behind the pre-rendered movie industry in terms of the technology we use – in fact, given that many games contain pre-rendered cut-scenes, we’re right there. So this is a risk that affects us as well.

Note that I’m not advocating photo-realism: a simple way out of the Uncanny Valley is to do what Pixar does and just not go there, instead pursuing a breathtaking individual visual style. But many people in our industry won’t or cannot make that choice.

The Beat wrote a follow-up blog post, which says, among other things:

Fast facts: THE POLAR EXPRESS did about $2.5 mil on its opening Wednesday. Estimated budget for the film: $265 million. That’s DOLLARS.


Many, many more news items, reviews, and comparisons of these two movies can be found on
Luxo, a blog entirely about Pixar.

Another reason why this whole discussion is relevant to the games industry is that Pixar has somehow managed to make a string of six movies that have been hugely successful, both critically and commercially.

Long-term, continuous success is one of the biggest challenges in any creative industry. In Hollywood, where, as William Goldman famously said, nobody knows anything, huge companies work like investors: they diversify their investments, hoping enough of them will become huge hits that then pay for the duds. It seems to work pretty well, at least financially.

The games industry appears to be much more punishing. I’m not going to go into how this manifests itself and what the causes and effects may be – that’s another post – but any developer has to try to achieve the highest quality, and do so consistently for long-term survival.

Examining successful companies like Pixar may give some interesting ideas. I actually had a link about exactly that subject and I can’t find it… But perhaps Pixar’s success cannot be replicated by mere mortals – an eerie mirror of the Nietzschean subtext of The Incredibles.

Update: For the Ayn Rand subtext of The Incredibles, read this.

Comments 6

  1. PaG wrote:

    I don’t know if it’s just the marketing, but The Polar Express didn’t seem that interesting to watch to me. Sure it has incredible visuals, but that’s the only thing that stand out. No good story, no real humour. It looks like a good movie to bring kids to, but at 265M$ I think they hoped for more than this.

    On the other hand, The Incredibles has a great high concept and the trailer was funny. It made me want to go see the movie, not because of the visuals (which are very nice but not in that “wow” kind of way) but because it seemed funny, witty and that it had good action.

    The uncanny valley may well have an impact on the two movie’s success, but I think the main problem is that The Polar Express lacks an interesting hook beyond technology.

    Posted 13 Nov 2004 at 17:25
  2. Aubrey wrote:

    Bird understands that ultimately, CG is just another tool. It has strengths and weaknesses, and it is the means, not the end.

    I just find it amusing that people attempt to make photorealistic CG when they could… y’know… just use a bloody camera! Then again, there’s something to be said for hyper real paintings, so, once again, I dunno.

    Posted 15 Nov 2004 at 17:57
  3. codemonkey_uk wrote:


    I’ve not read Nietzsch, or seen The Incredibles, but the link you give seems to describe a very Anne Rand philosophy. Is that Nietzschean? I’ve always thought it was Libertarian.

    Posted 16 Nov 2004 at 10:34
  4. Jurie Horneman wrote:

    Hmm… well, I haven’t read Ayn Rand, but that’s being read into The Incredibles as well. I’ve added some links.

    Posted 16 Nov 2004 at 14:17
  5. Walter wrote:

    Ha. Nietzsche and Ayn Rand had some similarities in terms of privileging “great men” and despising those who resented them and tried to keep them from reaching their potential. Beyond that, however, I think they’re fundamentally at odds: Rand’s philosophy is called “Objectivism”, whereas Nietzsche, I think, was one of the major steps on the way to postmodernist theory.

    But yeah, Rand’s Objectivism shares a lot in common with Libertarianism, although Objectivists are a bit more cult-like in their behavior…they were especially so when Rand was alive (just be careful not to suggest they’re the same as Libertarians in front of an Objectivist: I don’t think they like the association).

    I’m not entirely sure, but I don’t think Nietzsche ever had such a fleshed out a political philosophy. And in any case, I doubt it would look like Rand’s.

    Oh, but how incredible is The Incredibles! Definitely my favorite Pixar film so far.

    Posted 21 Nov 2004 at 9:40
  6. Creford wrote:

    How wonderful it is! Today, I had seen the film – “The Incredibles” this afternoon, my father also had seen this film in this evening. This cartoon movie is powered by Disney-Pixar.
    In this film, I love the people’s sensation, scene, bugbears. The scene is so sublime.
    With the great imagination.

    Posted 23 Mar 2005 at 2:40

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