It can be argued that, while scientists may have more effectively recreated scientists, it is the artists who have come closest to understanding and capturing the essence of humanity (Bates 1994).
Robotics is on the rise. Trying to create emotionally believable and trustworthy companions for childcare, household or medical service, the main goal is to produce the ultimate ‘buddy’ for users. Role models for these companions can be found in animated films, since the possibilities of animation are especially useful for the creation of what Dziga Vertov called “a man, who is more complete than Adam” (Verov 1923: 17-18). On one hand, animated films prove to be a perfect playground for experimenting with the possibilities and surveying the potential effects of robots. On the other hand, these animated characters shape the users’ expectations – comprising both desires and fears alike – and put the creators of robots in a difficult position.
One main commonality that both film and real-life robots share, however, is their creators’ intent to avoid Uncanny Valley effects by striving for anthropomorphic, zoomorphic, or skeuomorphic designs that call humans, animals, or objects their points of reference, respectively. These appearances seem to show a tendency towards one of two poles: “beating in the robots’ chests” – namely very machine-like, competent, and potentially threatening appearances on the one hand and cute, emotional, and rather harmless ones on the other. Throughout film history, cute, seemingly trustworthy, and likable robots won over the hearts of viewers as carriers of sympathy. However, although in the course of the narration and their hero’s journey they often proved to be at least as competent as all their more threatening counterparts, they are not perceived as such (Uhrig 2017). Furthermore, robots are seldom given the chance to enter center stage as the main protagonist. Their positioning seems to be restricted either to funny sidekicks and faithful servants or to lethal villains (often former servants). Film robots seem to meet the same glass ceiling as their real-life counterparts. As implemented by the Second Law of Robotics, they still “obey the orders“ given them (Asimov 1950: 40).
Two very prominent computer animated examples that present robotic protagonists are Pixar’s WALL-E (2008, by Andrew Stanton) and Disney’s Big Hero 6 (2014, by Don Hall & Chris Williams). As key figures, both robots function as the carriers of the action by providing all elements necessary in terms of emotional character engagement according to Smith’s Structure of Sympathy (Smith 1995). These elements include: (1) the recognition of a character as carrier of the action by the viewers; (2) the viewers’ alignment with the character – including both the viewers following of a character through the narration as well as the taking over of the character’s subjective point of view; (3) allegiance, meaning the guidance of the viewers’ moral orientation by the character. Together, these three levels of attachment form a Structure of Sympathy.
In WALL-E and Big Hero 6, the characters’ designs as well as their behavior and actions are witnesses of an attempted balance between the two poles – between technological genius and emotional human being – and try to equalize both in terms of creating a perfect main character. It was Joseph Bates who stated in the context of a study with computer animated “Wobbles” (1994) that it was flaws and emotionality that formed the key elements that made for a believable agent. Furthermore, the stereotypical ‘main character without secrets’ (Uhrig 2018) wins the sympathy of the viewers with their apparent trustworthiness and harmlessness. These characteristics apply to both WALL-E and Baymax (i.e. the robot protagonist of Big Hero 6). For WALL-E, the design – squeaky sounds and rusty appearance together with childlike proportions and huge eyes (that can beautifully display emotions such as sadness, fear, and surprise) – serves as the illustrator of the robot’s lovable and harmless character and determines his corresponding effects on recipients (Uhrig 2017). On the other hand, his friend Eve’s as well as the design of Disney’s superhero Baymax show a more clean, updated appearance which directly leads to them being perceived as more competent – at the expense of a sympathetic and trustworthy impression (Uhrig 2017). Furthermore, the two characters show higher arousal-active actions compared to the little cleaning servant. However, Baymax also promotes his harmlessness by clumsy actions and naive statements which seem to outbalance his highly skilled abilities as the superhero. Even though equipped with amazing superpowers, he is actually perceived as less competent than the much simpler service robot Eve (Uhrig 2017). In order to provide for serious, engaging characters that are capable of eliciting empathic reactions and not only sympathetic ones, it seems necessary to make them appear intelligent, skilled, capable, and competent in the first place and to add clumsy and cute characteristics only very carefully.
Thus, while robotics tries to find a way to create Artificial Best Companions (ABCs), film was able to realize that goal long ago. However, animated robots are still striving for emancipation when it comes to the occupation of the serious main characters that are not merely funny sidekicks or threatening antagonists. Despite their pioneering role, animated robots still have a way to go to free themselves of the second Law of Robotics and dare a little closer towards the borders of the uncanny.
Asimov, Isaac (1950). “Runaround”. I, Robot. (The Isaac Asimov Collection, Ed.) New York City: Doubleday.
Bates, Joseph (1994). “The Role of Emotion in Believable Agents”, Communications of the ACM, 37(7), pp. 122-125.
Smith, Murray (1995). Engaging Characters. Fiction, Emotion and the Cinema, Oxford: Clarendon Press.
Uhrig, Meike (2017). Film Knowledge vs Design. On the Perception of Robots, Tübingen: unpublished study.
Uhrig, M. (2018). “In the Face of… Animated Fantasy Characters”. In: Holliday, C. & Sergant, A. (Hg.) Fantasy/Animation. Connections Between Media, Mediums and Genres, Routledge 2018.
Vertov, Dziga (1984). Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov. Michelson, Annette (ed.), Los Angeles: University of California Press.
Meike Uhrig is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Media Studies at Tuebingen University, Germany and coordinator at the Tuebingen Centre for Animation Studies. She spent a research year as Visiting Researcher at the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, USA. Her latest publications include “Emotion in Animated Films” (Routledge, in press), and “In the Face of… Animated Fantasy Characters” (Routledge 2018).