Level 3 Contextual Studies Learning Log

Testing the water

Will Computer Generated Images Pass as Photography?

I have always been one to poke at boundaries particularly if they are artificial and based on bias, so this year during the lockdown I had no opportunity to shoot and real models in my studio as I had been ordered to shield as a person on the high-risk register. This put a crimp in many peoples plans not least my camera club who could not run a print competition over zoom so all the images had to be PDI’s (Projected Digital Images) so for a bit of fun, they changed the open print competition into a series of themed PDI competitions, the two that made me think were monochrome and portrait.

I do not enter competitions as a rule as I do feel competition is an effective way of testing an image and the result comes down to the opinion of one person who is not necessarily the best person to comment. So this year I decided to break with tradidtion as an experiment and put some images into the competition but in this case I was intending to create a set of images with varying degrees of the uncanny valley to see how the judge would react the following six images were entered into two of the rounds the first three into portrait and the second set of three into monochrome:

In the first competition the images all scored highly except the third one which the judge thought should have had a much heavier half shadow, which is debatable but his opinion so fair enough however he did not spot the uncanny valley in anyof them assumed they were shot in a studio and marked the first two highly saying that I had a great control of my lighting. No that last bit is interesting and true as in the animation studio I had to create the lighting just as I would in my studio the principles are exactly the same thus someone with no skill at lighting but an ability to use the animation studio would struggle to acheive the same result.

A few weeks late cam the monochrome competition and I created 3 more the first one was supposed to mimic those art nude body landscapes and I chose not to show the head as this really removes a lot of the uncanny vally features, this worked, the judge was completely taken in and it was held back as scored a 9.5,  The second image seemed to rock the judge a bit as it was deliberatly made to look uncanny however he scored it highly and let it pass. The third image was deliberatly really uncanny and was actually a joke as it was mimicking anoth club member who puts lots of images in of a lady playing a recorder this was not a serious attempt but it still di quite well even though he was even more disturbed by there being something not quite right, I messed up a bit by not noticing that the trumpet I created was rendered with a glass skin rather than a metal skin so looks a bit transparent, this was the thing he picked up and marked it down for go figure.

So after all of that it seems I got away with it I then came clean and had a discussion with the members of the club to some very mixed opinions as to the legality of doing this, however, the rules clearly do not prohibit this so the results stand, I did not enter the other two rounds as the marks were quite high and I really did not want to end up with a trophy and a mob of angry photographers on my tail

The Uncanny Valley

For my body of work, I am increasingly using computer-generated characters in my images, this has led me to discover a phenomenon called the Uncanny Valley.

The uncanny valley is used to describe the relationship between the human-like appearance of an object and the emotional response it evokes. In this phenomenon, people feel a sense of unease or even revulsion to humanoid objects that approach a high level of realism.

In 1970 professor Masahiro Mori identified this concept and called it “bukimi no tani genshō (不気味の谷現象)” which translates literally to “Uncanny valley phenomenon”  this translation was first used in 1978 by Jasia Reichardt in the boo Robots: Fact, Fiction, and Prediction

Mori’s original hypothesis states that as the appearance of a robot is made more human, some observers’ emotional response to the robot becomes increasingly positive and empathetic, until it reaches a point beyond which the response quickly becomes strong revulsion. However, as the robot’s appearance continues to become less distinguishable from a human being, the emotional response becomes positive once again and approaches human-to-human empathy levels.

This area of repulsive response aroused by a robot with appearance and motion between a “barely human” and “fully human” entity is the uncanny valley. The name captures the idea that an almost human-looking robot seems overly “strange” to some human beings, produces a feeling of uncanniness, and thus fails to evoke the empathic response required for productive human–robot interaction.

The following pictures are examples of the more extreme reaction of the uncanny valley, the first is a dentist practice dummy and the other two are human likenesses from robotics commonly used to demonstrate the uncanny valley

Relevance to Contextual Studies

The existence of the uncanny valley and the viewer reaction to its effects have d direct effect on my body of work and the way it is likely to be received by the public, my intention is to research the phenomenon and determine what if any tricks and techniques can be applied to my work to make it more acceptable to the wider public.

The 2001  film Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, was the first computer-animated feature film took a dive at the box office gaining a Rotten Tomatoes score of 44% which has been attributed to the effect the uncanny valley had on the audience, this was so pronounced that when the animated character of Princess Fiona was shown to children in a test screening she made them cry, Dreamworks took the decision to back off the reality and make her more cartoon-like so that she did not tip into the uncanny valley, a decision that made it a hit with a rotten tomatoes score of 90%.

There are clearly repercussions in computer generating humans and though techniques and technology are advancing rapidly to a point where I can generate a very realistic human on my PC now a process that took hundreds of hours and a room full of rendering computers in the early days of Pixar. It still seems that an understanding of the uncanny valley and what triggers it are a key skill if I am to pull off my body of work.

This also leads me to the debate of how much traditional photography is being replaced by Computer Generated imagery, and the reaction people have to this.

I have recently conducted an experiment at a camera club entering photographic competitions with increasingly less believable people the reaction was interesting and has triggered a debate about what is acceptable in their competition rules, which don’t currently exclude this type of image. To make the argument even more heated the process of creating these images is very similar in every way to taking a photograph so the debate is getting heated.

Initial Draft of Princess Fiona from Shrek

Princess Fiona from the Shrek film