Research Output

Make-Believing Animated Films Featuring Digital Humans: A Qualitative Inquiry Using Online Sources

  A qualitative inquiry of reviews of films featuring digital humanlike characters was performed by sampling user comments from three online reviewer aggregator sites: the Internet Movie Database, Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. The movies chosen for analysis were: Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (2001), The Polar Express (2004), and Beowulf (2007), all produced using CGI animation, together with A Scanner Darkly (2006a) whose visuals are depicted by rotoscoping using Bob Sabiston’s Rotoshop software. Our analysis identified individual differences in the viewing experience, particularly in relation to the uncertain ontology of the humanlike characters created using CGI (CGI-Humans). We found examples of reviews indicating an inability to distinguish between real and CGI-Human actors, observations of characters transiently exhibiting realism before returning to their artifice, and of characters being viewed as eerie (analogous to the uncanny valley) thus illustrating a complex and dynamic response to this phenomenon. In some situations character uncanniness was related to the presence of an atypical feature such as movement of the eyes. Whilst specifically for Beowulf, perceptions became more problematic when there was familiarity with the actor playing the CGI-Human character, with some reviewers describing difficulties in categorising the character as either real or animated. CGI-Human performances were also characterised by a lack of, or inappropriate social interaction. Online reviewers did not perceive characters depicted using Rotoshop (Rotoshop-Humans) as eerie and rotoscoping was found to preserve, and possibly enhance, the natural social interactions between actors recorded from the live-action film used as the source for the animation. Our inquiry also identified user motivations for viewing these movies and the importance placed by reviewers on the form of display when viewing the CGI films. We situate our interpretation of these findings in relation to Walton’s make-believe theory (Mimesis as Make-Believe: On the Foundations of the Representational Arts, 1990) revealing its application to our understanding of the viewing experience of animated films featuring digital humans.

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  • Date:

    01 July 2017

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  • Library of Congress:

    QA75 Electronic computers. Computer science

  • Dewey Decimal Classification:

    006.6 Computer graphics

  • Funders:

    Edinburgh Napier Funded


Hetherington, R., & McRae, R. (2017). Make-Believing Animated Films Featuring Digital Humans: A Qualitative Inquiry Using Online Sources. Animation, 12(2), 156-173.



Make-believe, digital humanlike characters, CGI, Rotoshop, uncanny valley, viewer experience.

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