Madame Tussauds New York recently revealed its latest creation: Grizabella the Glamour Cat from the popular musical Cats. Grizabella is no ordinary, blank-eyed wax figure, though. Thanks to cutting edge projection mapping and 8K camera technology, the singing cat’s face moves, smiles, and contorts. I recently visited the museum and was surprised at how much it looks like a real living person from a few feet away. The figure is also the latest example of technology invading another realm of intrigue and blurring our lines of reality.
You might even say this feature film. It’s just real enough and not trying so hard that it convinces you to stop believing.
This is what wax figures have done for hundreds of years. Madame Tussaud became legendary for making models of celebrities in the late 18th century, after learning the art of wax sculpting from Swiss physician and sculptor Philippe Curtius. One of Curtius’s most famous works is “Sleeping Beauty,” an automatised figure of Madame du Barry reclining on a luxurious gown.
Made in 1765, the waxwork features a clockwork mechanism that makes it look like the woman is breathing. Still on display at Madame Tussauds in London, the original “Sleeping Beauty” is the oldest wax figure in the collection. There’s also a replica made in 1989 in the permanent collection at the Met. The museum describes the work:
Combined with the realism of the figure’s tinted wax, wig, and clothing, the mechanised body seems poised on the threshold between art and life. Lifelike images of swooning and cataleptic women known as Sleeping Beauties became popular forms of fairground entertainment in the eighteenth century. Male onlookers took pleasure in viewing these passive female bodies and determining whether they were real or robotic.
You can go to Madame Tussauds in New York City and see the same thing happening, albeit in a distinctly 21st-century fashion. Almost every figure in Madame Tussauds collection looks realistic but stands too still to be mistaken for a real person.
But in the new Broadway exhibit, Grizabella is perched a few feet above the guests, peeking out from the darkness, and singing “Memory,” the most famous song from the very famous Andrew Lloyd Weber musical. You can clearly see each tiny shift in her expression, as if her face were lit by a sharp spotlight. She looks so real that I watched several guests ask museum staff if Grizabella was another one of the actors who roam throughout Madame Tussauds. Some people seemed unconvinced that she was just a figure.
Grizabella is Madame Tussauds’ latest attempt at making her figures come to life. It builds on a projection mapping project at Madame Tussauds Nashville where Darius Rucker volunteered to have his face scanned, digitised, and then projected onto a special figure with muted expressions. The nose, eyes, and mouth were smoothed out so that they appeared to be physically moving when the video was projected onto them. The end result looks just short of realistic.
Madame Tussauds has improved the technology in creating Grizabella. Using an 8K camera, the museum’s creative team captured the specific features of an actor’s face singing “Memory.” Projection-mapping software from Green Hippo stitched everything together so that it would render realistically on the three-dimensional surface. The figure is made of fibreglass, not wax, and there’s a special silver coating on the face. Then there’s a 4K projector operating at 6000 lumens that brings Grizabella to life. Unlike Curtius’s “Sleeping Beauty,” this automaton has no moving parts. The illusion is almost entirely digital.
Then again, Grizabella’s not perfect. The more you look at her unmoving but animated face, the most you realise that her lips seem distorted at times. Projection mapping, which is the art of projecting three-dimensional images onto two-dimensional surfaces, isn’t yet flawless. So while what you see at Madame Tussauds is impressive, a careful eye will inevitably reveal the illusion. That’s always been the case at Madame Tussauds, and based on other attempts at creating lifelike human figures, completely bridging the uncanny valley seems impossible.
Just think about the state of humanoid robots. Hiroshi Ishiguro, director of the Intelligent Robotics Laboratory at Osaka University in Japan, could almost be thought of as Madame Tussaud foil from the future. The scientist is globally famous for creating lifelike androids, many of which are based on real people. Ishiguro, like Tussaud, did two hundred years ago, built a figure of himself. Even by employing some of the most advanced robotic technology available, however, Ishiguro figures still don’t look, or more importantly, move, quite right.
Things get even more uncanny when you try to program lifelike robots to think and talk like humans. A lifelike robot named Sophie has been touring the world for a couple of years now to show off the artificial intelligence and robot-building prowess of a company called Hansen Robotics. I met and had a conversation with Sophie last year. It was one of the creepiest experiences of my life. Because again, if I squinted a little, she might look like a real person, but she certainly didn’t move like one.
It almost surprises me to admit that Madame Tussauds’ new projection-mapping project is the most convincing fake-real human I’ve ever seen. However, since it’s just a very advanced movie playing on a three-dimensional canvas, I’d also have to say that it’s the most limiting. The more I think about it, the more it feels like Curtius’s parlor trick — the “breathing” figure of Madame du Barry — tells us everything we need to know about the future of fake humans. For an artist to make an android of any kind seem real, for now, that android ought to be simple. Maybe even make it out of wax.
Thinking about the subtle failures of Sophia and Ishiguro and Grizabella all together, my mind returns to the Cats movie. People seem genuinely horrified by the trailer and I don’t blame them. CGI has reached that point where the difference between the real and manufactured world are indistinguishable until half-moment when they’re not, and everything looks wrong.
That in between place is the uncanny valley. It’s that almost unspeakable space where Madame Tussaud, Philippe Curtius and others mess with us. And we love it so much we pay money to go to movies and museums just to feel tricked. Because sometimes the fake thing is the closest we can get to a better reality.
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