Uncanny valley and medium: is digital “too real”?

William B. Demeritt III
July 23th, 2012

I don’t think I can manage to write this post without somehow stepping into the argument of film vs. digital acquisition for motion picture filmmaking. Personally, I would operate a Pixelvision camera if it serves the story. The story is the cine qua non of filmmaking, otherwise we’re just shooting perfume commercials from the mid-90′s.

I had a thought recently that related to digital vs. film that correlates to my previous post about the “uncanny valley”. If you haven’t read that post, please give it a read?

Film seems more capable of preserving highlights, but digital can “see in the dark”. I wonder, depending how it’s shot, developed and projected, if digital has a hurdle to overcome with believability since film is already “flawed”, or “aesthetically imperfect” for its grain and limitation?

I was watching “The Dark Knight Rises” on Friday night, although not in IMAX which was how 60% of the film was shot. The razor-thin depth of field was just gorgeous, eye-catching and narratively compelling. However, Wally Pfister ASC’s lighting style got me thinking of the likes of Gordon Willis and Jordan Cronenweth (which I intend as a huge kudos to Wally Pfister).

One scene in particular caught my eye, and whose imperfections kicked off this whole thought. During a minor conversation, Joseph Gordon-Levitt sits on a couch in his Gotham PD street cop uniform, the room dimly lit by a tall window camera right (talent’s left). As per the story, the house’s dreary and dim lighting reflects a somber, lethargic mood. In the lack of light sources, Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s Gotham PD outfit loses most definition. The creases in his outfit disappear, as do the buttons and folds in the cloth. A badge barely remains.

From what I understand, “The Dark Knight Rises” was primarily shot on Kodak Vision3 5207 (250D) and 5219 (500T), film that some argue has 13 stops of latitude. Also, as a purist (though some might characterize in a negative sense), they still finished “The Dark Knight Rises” photochemically (no digital intermediate). I’m not a photochemical expert, but I believe this limits their ability to play with that latitude in post. In that scene with JGL, they weren’t fighting highlights. Further, to match the mood, perhaps the decision was made to underexpose him one or more stops? The film apparently didn’t “see in the dark”, and we lost his costume.

Is that bad?

Reading around online, something like 30% of people need glasses, not to mention how many people develop age-related macular degeneration and other vision degradation over the course of their lives. Most people who still have their vision rely on it daily, and in relating to other people, we dig out that uncanny valley by which we’re accustomed to realism vs. photorealism. So what happens when our media, our entertainment/art, exceeds our normal capabilities?

In an article published on July 15, 2012, entitled “The Ghost in the Machine: Unraveling the Mystery of Consciousness“, they quote Alva Noë:

“It’s almost as if each of us is a submariner in a submarine and we’re traveling around. There are no windows on the submarine. We know nothing about the world around us other than the data we pick up, and we try to construct some model of what’s going on outside, but we’re trapped inside. For most neuroscientists who think about consciousness, the assumption is that we’re trapped inside our heads.”

I would suggest that, when sitting in a movie theater, we’re no longer “trapped” in our own heads (perhaps just sequestered), but suddenly trapped inside the heads of our filmmakers as they play make believe. Normally, we have our own eyes which we control and frame our worlds, thereby shaping our input. In the darkness of the theater, our filmmakers control our eyes, although we scan the screen for what we take in and leave behind (which opens up questions about framing complexity, substantive hinting towards a subject and the foundations for why and how we frame subjects e.g.- the “180″, proxemics, etc).

With the advent of digital cinema, 4K+ cameras and high definition imaging, what happens when scanning that screen with our own eyes, locked inside the minds of our filmmakers, and we start seeing the world with a visual clarity we subconsciously find “uncanny”? We normally do not see skin tone and complexion with the clarity of HD, and if we do, perhaps we don’t pay as close attention to it.

Perhaps this is worth considering: every frame of film is chaotic, unique fingerprint of silver halide crystals that are burned to film. If you filmed the same static setting for 10 frames or 10,000 frames, no two frames would look the same because of the film grain. In many ways, each frame is as unique as a snowflake (although recent studies said that even snowflakes aren’t as unique as “snowflakes” were once thought to be), and it’s imperfect.

Our eyes do not remain perfectly still, mostly because of our Orienting Response, constantly seeking changes in our environment for the sake of self preservation. Our head never remains still (but they’re also no frantic crazy handheld). We’re alive, and our vision is alive.

I wonder if film has worked so well with the human audience because film, for all it’s imperfections, when projected, looks less perfect than how most of us see the world? Does a locked off digital camera replicate the imperfections in the world? Does a digital projection create the minor flaws, perceivable only by our subconscious, such as a registration pin locking into film passing through a gate, “nearly” placing the frame in the same symmetrical place?

Is digital eery, in the way we see more clearly than we ever do before? Can we still connect with the story when our distracted subconscious becomes unnerved by these changes? What does this hold for the future of 4K projection, 48fps filmmaking, or 3D? Has 3D never exceeded the level of spectacle because of how different it is from anything close to a human experience?

I’m not trying to take a position on the film vs. digital debate, but rather discuss the possible setbacks in the advancement of new technology. I feel very lucky and try to stay respectful of the notion that, for those people in the theater, I operate their eyes and help filmmakers tell their story. I feel very fortunate for that opportunity, and want to help us all understand the very human questions about how we play make believe. How good is too good? How perfect is too perfect? At what point do we lose our audience?

Know your audience. Demographics mean nothing when you disregard their humanity.

William B. Demeritt III