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.

Ouch.

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.

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