What can these dancing robots teach us about VFX?

While I was watching these dancing robot videos and preparing for the eventual robot uprising, the thought occurred to me, “Why do these things look so wrong?”

Boston Dynamics has released a number of viral videos over the years. The robots they make are obviously incredibly kinetic and smooth and really interesting to look at. albeit a bit unsettling at times. Every time I sit and watch it almost always comes to mind, “If that were a VFX recording, I’d put more work into the compositing, it doesn’t look quite real.”

Let’s talk about why that is.

This video kind of drives me crazy. That’s the word on the street there is no CG included in the Boston Dynamics videos. As I sit here and write this article, I still find it hard to believe. There are moments in the video that definitely seem real and some where I’m almost sure the robot is a CG asset.

Let’s say we take them at their word and try to believe that this is completely real and not just one Really successful VFX sequence.

Why does it look so wrong? The answers can have useful implications from a VFX / filmmaker’s point of view.

Frame of reference

When it comes to VFX, one of the biggest things that makes it difficult to realistically sell a shot with CGI is when we don’t currently have a tangible real-world frame of reference for what is shown.

Roland Emmerichs 2012 is a great example of this. This film is rich in some of the best environmental destruction scenes in film history, even more impressive when you consider that it was shot in 2009. As a viewer, however, he still feels like everything is pretty wrong, and what lacks a better term, “CGI-ish.”

That’s because we don’t have a frame of reference for the large-scale destruction in the movie.

Personally, I have never driven on a road that has collapsed into the core of the earth, and I hope none of you have either. I’ve also never seen a cloud of smoke explosion taller than the Empire State Building. So when you see these things in the movie, they just play as CGI no matter how many smoke simulations you do.

On the flip side, explosions of this magnitude look pretty similar in real life to what they do in the movies. We just don’t see it in person or filmed in super high definition very often, so on film it just looks like it’s CGI.

I think the same is true here. How often do we see three or four robots performing a perfectly choreographed dance number with extremely smooth movements and almost relaxed animation at the keyframe level? It’s new. I’ve never seen it before so I can think of it as a fake.

I think the good news here is that VFX artists are a bit closer to realism than it sometimes may seem.

Super smooth materials

One of the first tricks a CG artist pulls out of their toolbox to make a shot more photoreal is to add more surface imperfections to their materials. To get a photo-realistic rendering, you need those smudges, scratches, and cracks that every solid object on the planet gets over time.

A VFX artist would tell you that any material that is perfectly clean and doesn’t have at least a little visibly worn texture is not real enough.

Well, those squeaky clean robots from Boston Dynamics would tell you otherwise.

Recognition: Boston Dynamics

As you can see, these robots barely have a scratch. That is really almost the most important thing I notice about the materials on the robots.

I’ve gotten so used to seeing scratched, weathered robot figures that a clean one makes almost no sense. I’m sure these robots have a spot or two when you are up close, but at this distance they really just look like super clean, shiny polygons.

Camera movement and motion blur

Boston Dynamics robot motion blur

The slightest motion blur can be seen in the upper left corner, much less than we are used to from things that move so fast.Recognition: Boston Dynamics

Finally, another thing that really makes this video look like CG is camera movement.

I could imagine Boston Dynamics using some kind of super-ridiculous camera-robot system here. The movement is just so smooth, zooming in and out (maybe digitally) and moving in circular patterns around the subjects.

In fact, the camera really does almost all of the things Tutorials will tell you not to do this if you want realistic camera movement. For more realism, you’d probably add some handheld camera shake or even intentional overshoot when framing. Seldom do you see cameras (even on gimbals or other stabilizers) so smooth and calculated. They would add some more perceived human errors.

This, coupled with the fact that there is very little motion blur in the piece and it’s also shown in 30fps as opposed to 24fps, really seals the deal.

Sometimes it looks like a CG sequence to my eye.

What we can learn

So what can we learn from all of this? All I know is that these robots look kind of wrong to me, but apparently they aren’t.

Would have looked better if more surface defects had been added to the robots (maybe with it)? Or would the animations be a bit jerkier or more machine-like? No not really because this is actually real life and the robots are clean and the movements are actually that smooth.

It definitely raises a thought about how viewers are trained to perceive things based on what we’re used to from watching special effects and what they look like actually perceive things they have never seen before.

Do you have thoughts Share them in the comments.

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