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Mike Pelletier (self portrait)Mike Pelletier

Biography:

Mike Pelletier (Saskatchewan, Canada) is an interactive artist & technical director, who has extensive experience working with artists, designers and directors in creative environments. He has participated and hosted a number of creative technology workshops and his his work has been featured in festivals and exhibitions around the world.Through this he has developed a unique understanding of both the creative and technical sides of creative production and how they overlap. Some of his experience includes creating interactive installations for bands such as Nike, Viktor & Rolf and Diesel. Currently he is working at Random Studio,in Amsterdam, Netherlands.

Still-frame from Parameteric Expression by Mike PelletierParametric Expression (2013)

A series of ambient video loops exploring quantified emotion. A version of this project was displayed at Mediamatic Fabriek for the RVNG label night presented by Subbacultcha! and curated by Marieke Van Helden.

Horrifying and beautiful: embracing the uncanny valley effect.” Review and interview by Liat Clark at Wired U.K. (July 31 2013):

We’ve all done it — shouted before thinking, cried inappropriately or shot an angry glare at a stranger on the tube, not abiding by sardine-can etiquette. It’s this drift, the ease with which we can slip from one emotion to another without thought or warning, that is partly behind artist Mike Pelletier’s uncannily lifelike and disconcertingly emotive piece Parametric Expression.Having worked with 3D human characterisations before, he’s also all too familiar with the “uncanny valley” aspect of said engineered characters — but instead of shying away from it as many working in AI spend their professional careers striving to do, he dove straight in and embraced the weird and wonderful side of human expression and human interpretation of expression. As you can see in the embedded animation though, Pelletier also enjoys drawing his viewers in with a dose of realism, giving a false sense of security before the horror begins — mirroring the uncanny valley effect to the extreme.

“I was exploring what happens when we try to measure and quantify expression and emotion,” Pelletier told Wired.co.uk. “By pushing the expressions to their most absurd extremes, I was trying to embrace how easy it is to get things wrong and to try and find beauty within the mistakes.” And when Pelletier pushes things to the extreme, he’s not exaggerating. Make one of these faces on the tube, and no one will dare stick their sweaty armpit in your face again.

The realism is courtesy of open-source program Makehuman, which Pelletier describes as a “parametric character generation tool” that helps users build expressive 3D figures. Using a slider system, things like age, race, weight, height and muscle tone can be tweaked. It’s like a much more sophisticated build-your-own-SIM system that lets you tweak everything down to nose size or dimples.

“It’s a super useful tool but also a profoundly weird way of looking at the human figure,” says Pelletier. “It feels really odd to reduce a person’s unique features into a series of sliders. I used [Makehuman’s library of facial expressions] to blend multiple expressions at once. The character model I customised was intended to be fairly generic and androgynous, overly digital, but just realistic enough that might feel some connection to it. Playing around with the software was definitely a big part of the inspiration of the piece, specifically the discomfort and weirdness I felt when working with the software.”

… Then, as another figure crops up, the pair being to mirror each other with a delay. “I chose to have the expressions move precisely from one face to the other mostly because it would be impossible for it to occur in real life.” It’s the first indicator that something’s really not quite right.

… explains Pelletier. “The distortion comes from mixing the expressions far past their normal limits, until they become something completely different and beautiful.”

… Red and white geometric shapes extend without warning from their heads, after a warm-up session of creepy gurning and teeth-baring by the pair.

The figure is designed to be androgynous, but when the camera pans down for a full length shot and the character ambles towards the camera, viewers are further thrown off by a feminine form baring its teeth and frowning, in what could very well be a scene from The Walking Dead.

… Pelletier sees not just the uncanny valley-likeness in his pieces, but beauty in that inherent confusion, as we the viewer try to piece together something engineered, to make it whole and familiar again.

This Video Proves The Uncanny Valley Is In Hell
“WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU EMBRACE RATHER THAN AVOID THE UNCANNY VALLEY? AS IT TURNS OUT, PURE HORROR.” Review by John Brownlee (August 22 2013) at Co.Design.

There are definitely some art projects you shouldn’t experience under the influence of hallucinogens, for instance, Bruce Nauman’s Clown Torture, Ron Mueck’s giant sculptures, or Lingxizhu Meng’s baby-pets. You can add to that list Parametric Expression, a new short film by Canadian artist Mike Pelletier that is one part Fantastic Planet, one part Lawnmower Man, and one part Hellraiser. Eerie, otherworldly, and more than a little horrifying, it will definitely make an impression.

In Parametric Expression, a pair of nude, hairless computer models repeat the same off-putting facial expressions in a digital limbo that seems to exist somewhere between the uncanny valley and hell. Sometimes the faces will glitch out, blooming into a blood-colored biomass of intertwining polygons. Other times, these visages will just twitch and leer, pulling back their muscles into ever-intensifying rictuses that, in humans, would cause their facial muscles to roll up like window shades. It’s disturbing.

As its name implies, Parametric Expression is ultimately about what happens when the expressions on the faces around us–the wistful smile, the sarcastic smirk, the suggestive grin, the angry grimace–are converted from muscle memory into parameters an algorithm can understand. “I was trying to explore what it means when you reduce emotion to measurable, repeatable processes,” says Pelletier.

…It was this feeling of strangeness that was the bulk of Pelletier’s inspiration. “The uncanny valley effect is now something that many people are familiar with, and whenever there’s errors in the way a person’s face is represented, it can provoke strong reactions,” Pelletier tells me.

… And as Pelletier would be the first to admit, exploring emotion and facial expressions parametrically in the uncanny valley can end up being a pretty discomfiting experience. Everything about Parametric Expression is tinged with a feeling of wrongness. In fact, when Pelletier tried to introduce motion capture at the end of the piece, he wasn’t able to inject the missing humanity. “The collision between realistic motion data, the 3D rigging errors, and the frozen facial expression just amplified the wrongness factor,” Pelletier says. The model becomes like a demon, lurching toward the camera at the end of a Japanese horror movie.

Parametric Expression isn’t exactly comforting art, nor does it find a path through the uncanny valley. Instead, it just strands you there, and it turns out that the uncanny valley is a worse place than you could possibly imagine. Be warned.

See Also:

MakeHuman on Wired UK, thanks to Mike Pelletier’s work.

Randomized facial poses in Unity3d using blendshapes and Mega-fiers morpher:

“Emotions become monstrous in terrifying 3D animation.”By Dan Seifert at The Verge (August 1 2013).

Humans use facial expressions to either show or hide emotions, but artist Mike Pelletier has created a 3D animation titled “Parametric Expression” that personifies those emotions behind the expression — to a haunting and chilling effect. The non-descript, Prometheus-like faces explode into geometric shapes when they smile or scowl in Pelletier’s animation, which he calls “a study of quantified emotion.” Words can’t really do the animation justice, so check out the art piece in the video and GIFs

Parametric Expressions PosterDisturbing Animations Made by Pixar’s Evil Twin.” Review by Joseph Flaherty at (August 7 2013) Wired.com (U.S.)

Television programs like the Walking Dead have touched a nerve and gained an audience largely by scaring viewers with visuals of severed nerves and other viscera, but artist Mike Pelletier’s new video project, Parametric Expression, shows how horrific a banal facial expression can be.

There is no plot, no antagonist, just a group of androgynous characters staring, smiling, and baring their teeth in a stilted manner as if they were robots or aliens attempting to act human…

…Most artists use the software to create characters with distinct personalities, such as a cleft chin super hero or a rotund crime boss, but Pelletier wanted to focus on the unique aesthetic attributes of the software. “In a lot of my work I’m looking at how digital tools provide new ways of seeing the world and seeing ourselves,” he says. “All of these tools have their own specific aesthetic qualities, whether they’re MRI scanners, a thermal camera, or a Kinect. While often these are technical tools for measuring, observing, and recording, they can also be adapted for artistic expression.”

Taken on their own, the creepy countenances might just be seen as an awkward animation exercise, like something a Pixar animator would create if they were tasked with terrifying children instead of delighting them. When overlaid with Pelletier’s aesthetic choices, the robotic movements become downright alarming. The pale “skin” belongs to an android or vampire, but nothing human. The pink shadows around the eyes and mouth give the models a sinister albino feel. The rhythm of their movements seem more ritualistic than rote. Overall, the colors and surfacing are distressing without providing any clear reason why.

…Parametric Expression is one of several projects where Pelletier has explored the disquieting combination of biology and computation. Lucy Skull is a 3-D printed sculpture based on dental tomography data that is artfully manipulated to look like the result of an ultramodern technical glitch and an antique medical curiosity, simultaneously. His Kinect Portraits transform data from video game peripheral into pictures that make the subjects look like faceted statues, as if a modern Medusa stared them in the eye.

His sculptures and prints are stunning, but the creep factor snowballed when motion was added to the mix. “I found the collision of data recorded from the real world, mixed with the frozen expression really triggered the ‘uncanny valley’ effect for me,” he says. “It just highlights a feeling of awkwardness, that something isn’t entirely right, that there’s some sort of translation error happening.”

Quick documentation of installation presentation :

“Visuals for Subbaclutcha! x RVNG label night @ Mediamatic Fabriek”

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