Goodbye, Uncanny Valley. What Does the Future Hold for Photoreal CGI?

A deep dive into VFX from Alan Warburton and W+K's Tom Pounder

A still from El Popo Sangre's 2017 film And Now, Make Something Beautiful

A new 15-minute video is offering a survey of computer graphics past, present and future. And for anyone tickled by the medium, it’s well worth a watch.

“Goodbye Uncanny Valley,” written and directed by artist Alan Warburton and designed by Wieden + Kennedy London’s Tom Pounder, may not quite live up to its ambitious title, but it’s still a fun—and largely fascinating—look at the history of art form, its current landscape, and where it might go next.

To that end, and playing on the topographical metaphor from which the video draws its title, Warburton organizes the practice into a sort of map. First, there’s “The Uncanny Valley,” wherein he tracks the history of CG from its inception 50 years ago and its original raison d’etre—to mimic the physical world. That leads to the current “Frontier,” where the achievement of photorealistic nirvana has left the VFX industry scrambling instead for greater scale—bigger spectacles and ever-expanding fantastical universes (as in Marvel or Star Wars)—to keep audiences entertained with novel razzle-dazzle.

Then, there’s “Beyond,” or what comes next. Going forward, hyper-photorealistic CG might be used to manipulate reality, or at least blur the line between what’s genuine and what isn’t, eroding trust in images (think Photoshop on steroids). It might give way to, or at least facilitate, a new type of storytelling, wherein traditional cinematic devices are replaced by the high-octane, physically impossible blitzes to which action audiences are already accustomed. It might even lead to visualizing physical realities humans can’t actually see, like the black hole rendered using theoretical mathematics for Christopher Nolan’s film Interstellar in 2014.

Lastly, there’s “The Wilderness,” the fringes of current landscape, where artists play with CG’s powerful reality-emulating tools in ways other than those for which they were originally intended. These are often grotesque, and transgressive, and inventive in various ways, ranging from fetishistic to lo-fi and theatrical—Warburton name-checks a litany, and their modes are too diverse to easily summarize, but that’s part of his point.

“In paying closer attention to the tapestry of effects generated by these experimental artists, we might be able to move past reductive concepts like retro-graphics, surrealism, vaporwave, or gross-out media, and encourage a popular discussion about power, technology, images in the 21st century,” says his voiceover.

It turns out, in the end, Warburton has an argument to make, and it has something to do with what the average glossy experience of CG has to hide.

“The artists here demonstrate that seductive digital surfaces speak more about this age of technology when they fall apart, revealing their construction at the hands of imperfect people and imperfect machines,” he suggests. “So 2017 … Goodbye, Uncanny Valley. In these new lands the rules aren’t yet written. Artists here are hybrids, double agents, armed with the skills to become monsters in the wilderness, bandits at the frontier, and explorers beyond it.”

Many of the examples in the Wilderness category seem to still fit into—or riff on expectations around—the Uncanny Valley, as the layperson might define it (emulating humanity but not achieving it, to strange and unsettling effect). And there are some perplexing and under-substantiated aspects to Warburton’s case (clearly wrapped in a somewhat ill-fitting pop concept for rhetorical effect—namely to grab people’s attention).

Sure, it might be easy to forget that the current landscape is built on the labor of countless prior pioneers and contemporary practitioners, constantly evolving and growing. But that’s a fairly elementary observation, true of any cultural practice, and especially those that depend heavily on technology—everyone owes a huge debt to those who came before them, and often to their peers as well.