December 22, 2011 sees the North American release of “The Adventures of Tintin,” the heavily anticipated Steven Spielberg-directed adaptation of cartoonist Herge’s classic comics. It’s a fantastic film, with enough nods to the source material to keep old fans happy but not so many that uninitiated audiences will feel left out. But aside from the movie’s numerous, spectacular, jaw-dropping chase scenes, the most striking thing about “The Adventures of Tintin” is the manner in which it deftly sidesteps the uncanny valley problem.
First formulated by a robotics professor back in 1970, the uncanny valley hypothesis, simply put, claims that as approximate representations of human beings become increasingly realistic, there is a range in which viewer recognition turns to revulsion, before swinging back to acceptance as the images approach full-on realism. The entire explanation behind this response are long, complicated, boring and largely unnecessary to go into here (check Wikipedia for the entire hypothesis), seeing as it’s a rare person who hasn’t been seriously creeped out by porcelain dolls, ventriloquist dummies, sex robots and/or motion capture computer animation.
The go-to example for a theatrical offender has been, and likely will continue to be, the thoroughly unsettling-looking 2004 film “The Polar Express.” Though director Robert Zemeckis doesn’t appear to have any problem setting up shop in the uncanny valley, as indicated by “Beowulf” and “A Christmas Carol,” “The Polar Express” remains arguably the most off-putting, due to dead-eyed characters who move almost as if they might be actual people — but not really. When it was first announced “The Adventures of Tintin” would, like “The Polar Express,” utilize motion capture computer animation, fans of the original comics material got understandably worked up about what seemed like an unavoidable one-way ticket to the uncanny valley.
Fortunately, that didn’t turn out to be the case, as the world of “The Adventures of Tintin” reveals itself to be lush, inviting and most importantly, populated by convincingly naturalistic characters. To achieve this effect, the filmmakers (most notably the wizards at Weta Digital) used a heavy dose of realism when crafting the cities, deserts and ships that act as the settings for “Tintin’s” most memorable scenes. Then, to prevent things from getting too creepy, they made sure the actual characters in the film were more expressionistic, or, for lack of a better word, cartoony. Thus, while the world of “Tintin” remained inviting and complex, the movie’s characters neatly avoided looking like nightmarish homunculi. A pretty neat trick — and one that was perfected by Tintin’s creator, over 80 years ago.
Most of Herge’s best-known comics feature simple line-work, devoid of crosshatching, with equal weight given to everything on the page, whether its foreground or background, character or setting. More relevant to our purpose, however, is the way in which Herge places his very distinct, cartoony characters into backgrounds, which, while still stylized, are remarkably precise and accurate. This approach was later christened ligne claire by Joost Swarte.
In his book, “Understanding Comics,” Scott McCloud explains in detail how ligne claire — which is French for “clear line” — actually “works.” Put simply, the detailed backgrounds make readers feel immersed in a fully-realized world, while the cartoony, graphic nature of the characters allows them to project their own personas onto the protagonist, increasing empathy without completely removing the tale from reality. Whether their intent was to reproduce what has worked in the past, or just the result of trying to emulate Herge’s unique aesthetic, the filmmakers of “The Adventures of Tintin” landed upon this approach, and have benefitted enormously from it, eschewing more “realistic” portrayals for heavily-stylized, extremely expressive characters that would feel at home in a much more cartoony production.
From “The Adventures of Tintin” to pretty much anything made by Pixar and countless other well-received computer animated films, studios are learning that if they want audiences to relate to their characters, they need to be, for lack of a better term, cartoony. Realistic textures, programs to generate shadows and algorithm-based fur are all great, but if people start to look too real, they quickly become creepy. Strangely, however, this is a lesson American direct market-focused comics (from here on out, referred to by the debatable but far quicker to type “mainstream comics”) have not yet learned.
While not as prevalent as during its mid-2000s heyday, photorealism still casts a puzzlingly long shadow in mainstream comics. Much of this can and should be chalked up to the nature of the direct market system — people like “realistic looking” comics and tend to buy a lot of them, so who can blame a company for putting them out? And yet, it’s verging on bizarre the way in which audiences who gag at the sight of dead-eyed, lurching computer animation seem completely at ease around stiff, lifeless, photo-referenced comics.
A frequent criticism of art tossed about by comic book fans and professionals alike is the ominous, vague, patronizing, “It’s too cartoony,” an insane sentiment given the explosive growth in popularity for both manga and anime, the continued success of animated shows and the poor reception of other almost-real-but-not-quite forms of art. Exceptions certainly exist, but for every Humberto Ramos or Greg Capullo who has found direct market success with an inspired, unique, expressive aesthetic, there are at least half-a-dozen working artists with styles that are at best stiff and lifeless, and at worst, lightboxed from actual photographs. Dig through your back issues and you can even spot popular artists who have made their work more “realistic” in an effort to appease audiences, editors or both.
There’s no accounting for taste, and certainly, there are some people out there who like stiff, static, photorealistic comics. But if the uncanny valley is something to be avoided in film, the question remains as to why it’s so actively pursued in comics, to the exclusion of artists and styles that could easily avoid those pitfalls. Can mainstream comics learn the lessons of “The Adventures of Tintin,” and importantly, should they?
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