Why It’s So Hard To Make CGI Skin Realistic

Looks like the strange valley was only… shallow.

20th century fox

By Meg ShieldsPublished September 17, 2021

Welcome to The Queue – your daily distraction of curated video content from all over the web. Today we are watching a video essay on why it is so hard to make the CGI skin realistic.


First introduced in the 1970s by Masahiro Mori, then professor of robotics at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, the strange valley describes the unsettling revulsion produced by characters and robots who strive and fail to achieve a compelling and realistic appearance.

You can always tell when something exists in the Strange Valley. But identify the specifics of What, exactly, making a character feel “bad” isn’t always so obvious. While the strangely wet eyes or unexpected human teeth are dead gifts, a more subtle element in the strange soup of the valley is the skin. Ignoring the main humanizing details can render the skin digitally lifeless and plastic. As if a synthetic android tries in vain to pass rubber off as flesh.

The Scorpion King in The return of the mummy, a fully animated CGI character in the likeness of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, is an infamous example of the gruesome possibilities of the strange valley. One of the factors that contributes to the human but not quite human appearance of the character is the unbelievably unbelievable nature of his skin. Located next to the main character of the 2019 film Alita: the angel of battle, it’s clear that today’s blockbusters have more or less cracked the code on a real-looking CGI skin.

The video essay below offers a breakdown of all the micro-considerations that allow modern CGI artists to create compelling renderings of human skin. It covers everything from pore mapping and light scattering below the surface to accurately factoring in the chances of color being induced by blood flow. It offers a brief introduction to how far we have come over the past decade. And if one wants to venture into the Weird Valley, or to celebrate its waning presence on the big screen, it’s essential to be granular. Because it turns out that most of this crucial detail work is, in fact, in-depth.

Watch “Why It’s So Hard to Make CGI Skin Look Real”:


Who made this?

This CGI skin video is from Vox, an American news site owned by Vox Media, founded in 2014. Vox produces videos on news, culture and everything in between. This video was produced by Phil edwards with the artistic direction of Estelle Caswell and editing the story by Bridgett henwood. You can subscribe to Vox on YouTube here. And you can follow them on Twitter here.

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Related subjects: Animation, The queue

Meg Shields is the humble farm boy of your dreams and a main contributor to Film School Rejects. She currently directs three columns at FSR: The Queue, How’d They Do That? and Horrorscope. She is also a curator for One Perfect Shot and a freelance writer for hire. Meg can be found shouting about John Boorman’s “Excalibur” on Twitter here: @TheWorstNun. (She she).



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