How uncanny…

I just saw Charlie Kaufman’s new stop motion animation Anomalisa. It is moving and human, though all the characters are made of synthetic materials and there are no human actors on screen.

If you aren’t on the hype already, watch the trailer! 

The clay models on screen are an interesting place to start thinking about the uncanny valley. Fittingly the trailer opens with the question – ‘what is it to be human?’. The uncanny valley was coined in the 70s by the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Moti. The uncanny valley references the phenomenon whereby a computer-generated figure or humanoid robot bearing a near-identical resemblance to a human being arouses a sense of unease or revulsion in the person. Anomalisa’s puppets are a mixture of artifice and realism, recognisable hand gestures and motion, but not-quite fluid. Across their eyes and around their hairline they sport a visible seam, indicating where the separate plates of their puppet faces fit together. Usually these seams are obscured in post-production; Kaufman and his codirector Duke Johnson decided to leave them in, feeling they “related to the themes that were in the story”. The seams feel Brechtian, they self-consciously remind us that Michael is not real, but representation.

The uncanny valley is interesting in relation to Anomalisa, as it affects our emotional connection / reading of the film as we traverse around the edge of the valley. There are those things we are comfortably familiar with while we are watching puppets, and simultaneously there are those elements of the puppet’s that are uncomfortably uncanny. The two scenes that stand out as achievements (and that come up whenever I talk about the film with people) are the two times we see the puppets nude – the first being the sequence when Michael gets out of the shower and drys off his body. Second, the sex scene later in the film between the main characters Michael and Lisa, that was a preoccupation in the Q & A with Kaufman, Duke Jonson and Jennifer Jason Leigh post-film.

The voice actress for Lisa said:“There’s something about the puppets that allows everyone to project themselves on to them in a certain way. It becomes more intimate and you become more emotionally involved. You experience it in a very real way.” 

Why and what is it about the puppets that have meant audiences are so touched by their nudity?  The human aspect, their vulnerability, and honesty? Though, due to the material conception of puppetry, the characters are none of these things – only inanimate and synthetic.

For me, the uncanny is a trope carefully used in the production of Anomalisa to explore human detachment. The film is set in a hotel called The Fregoli, reference to the Fregoli delusion, a rare psychiatric disorder in which a person believes that many different people are in fact a single person. In accordance, the voice for every character in the film, apart from Lisa and Michael, is the same actor. The seems on the characters faces, the repeated voice of a single actor for the majority of characters, are effects that destabilise notions of reality by evoking the uncanny. But Anomalisa shows that the uncanny is a complex  human reaction, verging on pathological. It interferes with human interaction, and can simultaneously inhibit, challenge, and help to create emotional connections humans and animated characters.

Screen Shot 2016-03-16 at 13.45.56

The sex scene is filmed in one long sequence, real-time, the camera stays on the characters from them undressing and kissing right through until climax and close. This is rare in a film. As a viewer, you’re more fully drawn in because there isn’t a familiar actor miming the sex on-screen. It somehow becomes more real when you aren’t imaging how the celebrities underwent the scene. Charlie Kaufman commented on this:

“People know so much about movies being made that they know there’s a crew around there and it becomes, ‘What’s it like to be pretending do that if there’s a crew around?’” he says. “‘Are they embarrassed? Are they wearing special little genitalia covers?’ None of that enters into it in Anomalisa so that does help.”

The more I think about this the more weird it is. Audiences are identifying more honestly with animated bodies rather than a human body…

its almost uncanny…


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