Monday, 6 October 2008

Living Vicariously in Uncanny Valley.

Colin Ledwith

It may be true that the uncanny is nothing else than a hidden, familiar thing that has undergone repression and then emerged from it.’ (1)

The ‘uncanny’, which is the English approximation of the German word unheimlich, was described by Sigmund Freud as an especial form of fear. Difficult to define, the term provokes philosophical debate, reaching far beyond everyday shorthand for the ‘eerie’ or ‘strange’ to re-examine central ideas concerning perception, identity, narrative and language. ‘Freud writes that the uncanny is associated with the bringing to light what was hidden and secret, distinguishing the uncanny from the simply fearful by defining it as ‘that class of the terrifying which leads us back to something long known to us, once very familiar.’ (2)

In his seminal essay on the subject of the uncanny, Freud uses Ernst Hoffmann’s short story Der Sandmann (1816) to illustrate the central, yet subliminal phenomenon associated with the uncanny; the unsettling sensation of the familiar discovered at the heart of the unfamiliar, or vice versa. Nathanial, the protagonist of Der Sandmann is troubled to the point of hysteria by fears developed in childhood, which he embodies in the nursery tale figure of the sandman. Nathanial’s arrested child-like terror is further augmented by his inability to separate the imagined figure from actual occurrences in his own house, thus elaborate constructed fiction and reality converge and blur as the story proceeds. (3)

In Freud’s recounting of Hoffmann’s work, other important factors in defining the uncanny are revealed. There is the sense of the bizarre, foreign and ungraspable. It is present when involuntary patterns repeat. It can arise from a sense of déjà vu, when inanimate objects appear to be conscious. It is felt in the presence of doubt, in the company of ghosts, and in the dark, alone. In contemporary life, it is perhaps present in the glitch and hum of modern technology; disembodied voices on the phone, computer generated imagery and virtual realities. The uncanny can be ugly and horrific. But it can also be disturbingly beautiful and verge on the ecstatic in complexities; the shifting and unstable gap between narrated past and narrating present, the fallible, selective and manipulative nature of memory, the subjective and relative status of the ‘reality’ of past experience in constant temporal and narrative slippage.

Film theory historically stresses temporality at the expense of spatiality, promoting complex narrative rather than compelling visual environments. Contemporary digital filmmaking overrides these conventional frameworks and assimilates the uncanny through the manipulations of environment, form and narrative. These creative possibilities have been unleashed relatively recently and reflect a shift from the computer as a tool, primarily understood in terms of information storage and numerical calculation, to the computer as one-stop medium for creative production, communication and global distribution.

The effect of computers in the motion picture industry has been profound. Until recently, external image montage, in which shots are inter-cut for emotional and associative impact (think of an impressionistic series of rapid edit shots in a movie, often used to convey a dreamlike, drunk, or drugged sensation to the viewer), were the only visual tool available to subvert narrative in film.

Now, through the work of computer generated imagery companies such as ILM and Digital Domain, we can experience the unsettling disquiet of the uncanny as montage within a single film frame. The traditional warning signals we are subconsciously trained to look for to alert us to the artificiality and construct of the manufactured image we see on the screen are now often absent; no matte lines, differences in film stock grain, or inaccurate image-scaling. Images within images are a visual language we recognise. Images seamlessly bonded to images within the same frame are not. We are no longer aware of any manipulation of the filmic image precisely because of the perfection of CGI manipulation; film becomes ‘unreal’, ‘unnatural’ or uncanny.

This paradoxical effect has a name: the ‘uncanny valley.’ A concept coined by Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, the uncanny valley argues that computer created simulacra of reality seem alive and convincing as long as they’re relatively low-resolution. Think of a comic strip for instance; with only a few lines on a page Charles Schulz created a vivid world and convincing emotions for his characters in Peanuts. When simulacra are low-res, the human brain fills in associative detail to help the image seem real. But when the CGI image approaches photo-reality, a reversal occurs. In Ryan Gander’s Is This Guilt In You Too (the study of a car in a field), we subconsciously scan the image in much greater depth and begin to focus on missed detail. The image realism suddenly plunges into a valley and becomes uncanny: unnervingly real, yet flawed and alien in an indefinable sense.

Freedom of image manipulation with film footage shot in the ‘real world’ and ‘cut and paste’ appropriation of archival footage through sophisticated computer editing is also freely accessible to anyone with time and a little money to spare. The rapid advancement of technology and recent availability of affordable-yet-powerful digital cameras, image capture equipment and editing software create complex narrative possibilities in the box-bedroom. As little as a decade ago similar possibilities would have been near impossible to achieve in a high-end post-production studio. The same technology further provides an instantaneous global distribution point for grassroots cultural production and self-publishing, as web outlets such as YouTube and flash file sharing sites proliferate.

The divide between documentary and artistry is blurred by technology, yet the credibility of a lens-based image still often relies upon the concept of ‘truth’ or reliable reportage. If a scene is constructed to appear real or spontaneous, or to provoke a specific reaction from the viewer, truth and honesty will be disputed. At the same instant, capturing a scene ‘as it is’ is impossible, as the photographer ultimately determines the look of the image, as in the Phil Collins film How to make a Refugee. When it comes to photography, agency, truth and representation are often discussed in moralistic terms, as dilemmas, and artistic freedom is not readily granted. In his last significant work Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes reflected on this symbolic meaning of the documentary photographic image, and its subjective quality, ‘that which pierces the viewer.’ Barthes explained that a photographic image is not a solid representation of ‘what is’ as ‘what was’ and therefore ‘what has ceased to be’. The photographic image does not make reality solid but serves as a reminder of the world’s inconsistent and ever-changing state. (4)

Today, this process of theoretical deconstruction has become cultural lyricism. In Subculture: The Meaning of Style, Dick Hebdidge defined punk’s ordered anarchy: ‘The punk subculture… signified chaos at every level, but this was only possible because the style itself was so thoroughly ordered.’ (5) Recently we witnessed a global saturation of the personal camera through the convergence of technology in the cell phone. Nowadays, nearly every citizen in the developing world is armed with a powerful recording device, and with the addition of a laptop, a powerful editing studio. It is this ordering or administration of newly deployed reality, signified by raw camera work and imperfect images (imperfections which confirm their status as ‘real’ images), that we witness the final codification of destruction.

Ironically, the radically deconstructive narrative and aesthetic possibilities of our digital age are currently almost entirely absent from mainstream cinema. The more experimental, raw aesthetics of filmmaking emerge in some strange quarters, the most startling cinema of recent times perhaps coming from the Iraq conflict: the 2003 United Sates military film of a dishevelled, recently captured Saddam Hussein in what looked like the prologue to a snuff movie, or indeed, the grainy colour saturated footage of Hussein’s undignified execution in late 2006 recorded on a cell phone camera.

Sergeant Wesley Wooden, a combat cameraman has said that ‘Basically, what we’re trained for is that the camera is our first weapon… We’re lucky enough to carry pistols. It gives you some more protection. You can shoot and shoot at the same time.’ (6) In a surreal culture clash, the joint Combat Camera Program, part of U.S. Military Visual Information Directorate, adopts the tactics of guerrilla filmmaking, the New Wave and the shoot-and-go immediacy of post-punk film in it’s ‘Video Flyaway Kit’, described thus: ‘All items are fitted into one case which can easily be handled by one person. It provides a single videographer with the capability to acquire video imagery, edit and compress the imagery using the laptop, and transmit the video clip via INMARSAT. This is an ideal system for use by a two man documentation team.’ (7)

The military producing some of the most arresting cinema verite of our age is something Paul Virilio predicted, writing that the gestures of surveillance, speed and vision have for a long time linked cinema and the military: ‘one could go on forever listing the technological weapons, the panoply of war, the aesthetic of the electronic battlefield.’ (8) The pre-eminence of the military as a movie production company using guerrilla film-making tactics is understandable given the collision of theory and irony jamming the channels of cultural distribution during the ‘80’s and ‘90’s. The self-aware, ironic statement by Sgt. Wooden, who recognises that the languages of warfare and perception are bound together, is made possible because cultural theory has been extensively mainstreamed into popular culture over the past twenty years. Post-modern theory, which essentially worked to make visible the codes that underpin cultural production, has been replaced by a context that has assimilated and ingrained theory into cultural production. Thus divisions such as avant-garde and mainstream, theoretical and naïve, are rendered practically meaningless as filmmaking in the digital present struggles to define its fluid, hybrid multiplicities.

The assimilation of cultural theory into the material of popular culture is evident not only in production and content, but also the permanently archived format of the consumer DVD, easily available and garnering publicity in multiple virtual cultural arenas, ranging from to personal blogs. Films are permanently demystified, stripped of their aura with the addition of a wealth of extra material: out-takes (often produced specifically for the DVD), production notes, secondary narration, cast and crew interviews, in ways described by Walter Benjamin in his prescient 1935 essay The work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. In 2006 a short CGI movie entitled Elephants Dream was released for mainstream theatrical distribution. Made entirely with ‘open source’ (copyright free) software, it was also released on DVD under creative commons licensing. The film was groundbreaking in that all 3D models, animatics and software are included on the DVD free for any use. In a further model of cultural assimilation, the Warp record label recently released advertising promos and short experimental films in the ‘Director’s Label’ DVD series by Spike Jonze, Michael Gondry, and Chris Cunningham, illustrating the extent to which film culture has changed: both media and content melding into a powerful new cultural form that exists at the far edges of what used to be called film or video.

This assimilation of theory not only in terms of narrative content, but also in terms of self-deconstructing format such as the DVD, suggests that digital video has the potential to archive the breakdown of the real, in real time. A feature film such as 28 Days Later, is significant because the attempt to capture realistically a hypothetical future only highlights the artifice of the medium. Ironically, the realism of films like The Blair Witch Project, the output of the experimental Dogme ‘95 group, and even to an extent the Saddam Hussein footage, rests precisely on their uncanny momentary anti-realism.

Contemporary films deploy shaky, hand-held cameras and self consciously hard lighting as shorthand for realism, but this only serves to reinforce the sense of bizarre ‘otherness’, and of the camera behind the image. Keith Griffiths has said that what ‘gave cinema part of its value, a confident, assured and unchallenged recording of reality, and one that was extremely difficult to modify or manipulate; has now been changed by the new digital technology.’(9)

It would appear then, as with the human replicant in the film Bladerunner, the closer digital technology takes us to the ‘real’, the closer we must re-examine that ‘reality’ and the more seamless and uncanny constructs will become. Image and narrative can no longer be trusted.

Colin Ledwith

  1. Sigmund Freud, The Uncanny (1919), ‘Sigmund Freud: Collected Papers, Vol. 4’, trans. and ed. Joan Riviere, Basic Books, 1959.

  1. Mike Kelley, Playing with Dead Things: On the Uncanny (1993), ‘Foul Perfection: Essays and Criticism’, ed. John C. Welchman, MIT press, 2003.

  1. Ernst Theodore Hoffmann, ‘Tales of Hoffmann’, trans. and ed. R.J. Hollingdale, Penguin Classics, 2001.

  1. Roland Barthes, ‘Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography’, trans. Richard Howard, Flamingo, 1984.

  1. Dick Hebdige, ‘Subculture: The Meaning of Style’, Verso, 1979.

  1. Virginia Heffeman, ‘Camera Down a Hole, and the World Follows It’, New York Times, Dec.16, 2003.

  1. As above.

  1. Paul Virilio, ‘War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception’, trans. Patrick Camiller. Verso, 1989.

  1. Keith Griffiths, ‘The Manipulated Image’,


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