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The Uncanny Valley

Edward Dolnick’s brilliant book The Forger’s Spell is about the Dutch forger Han Van Meegeren. His “Vermeers” fooled a lot of “experts” and made him a very rich man! His initial attempts failed to impress the art world at large because he went to great lengths to reproduce all the recognisable elements of a Vermeer masterpiece - and because he wasn’t Vermeer, and certainly wasn’t a genius - he failed.

One theory that Dolnick discusses is related to the world of robotics. He quotes Clive Thompson’s 1978 article Why Realistic Graphics Make Humans Look Creepy. He quotes the Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori, who suggests that our feelings about a robot plunge into what he calls the Uncanny Valley when a robot becomes too realistic. At a certain point, the balance is tipped and we start to focus on what is missing in this mechanised representation of a human being. In terms of a robot - or a cleverly animated human figure - I suppose that could be any number of things? Maybe its skin is too perfect, it’s facial reactions just a little too smooth - or maybe it just doesn’t smell right!

Van Meegeren only became a successful forger when he started producing paintings that looked nothing like any other Vermeer on the planet! Looking at them today, you have to wonder how anyone was ever taken in by them! (Read The Forger’s Spell if you want to know more about this. It is absolutely riveting!)

This made me think about the whole issue of authenticity - and how it applies to accent work. We talk about someone “putting on” an accent - and indeed, to play a role, an actor can put on an accent just as they put on a costume! But the extent to which an audience is convinced by that accent will vary from individual to individual....

I was listening to a recording of My Fair Lady from a recent Broadway production. Most of the cast members were American - and clearly they’d worked hard on their accents. The results were good - but in one case, a bit too good. There was a stiffness in the exact reproduction of the vowels (the GOAT vowel in particular) and consonants. Of course, I’m English and teach accents for a living, so my reaction is going to be very different from that of the average Broadway audience member. What was I hearing? Beautifully pronounced, slightly “period” realisations of vowels, and brittle carefully realised consonants - as if the actor were picking their way over a layer of thin, linguistic ice. What I missed was that sense of ease that a native speaker of the accent would have (the Higgins is English btw).

So was this a case of an accent falling into the Uncanny Valley? What I missed as a listener was a sense of someone being at ease in their accent. To continue the costume analogy - I’d rather an actor wore a costume that fitted them perfectly but was slightly inauthentic (whatever that might mean..). Do we, as audience members, feel discombobulated by an actor’s discomfort in their speech patterns? Do we notice their inability to move easily from one word to the next? Are there subtle clues in rhythm and intonation (as well as actual realisation of the vowels and consonants) that we perhaps can’t describe in a technical way - but nevertheless sense? Would I have noticed his English accent less if it had been a little bit more American?

There’s no easy answer to this. My guess is that most of the Broadway audience would have (rightly) been impressed by the detail in his English accent. If this were a production in London, the audience might be less forgiving. Accent work is always a balancing act: a balance between what the actor can do and what the audience expects... I have known many examples where accent coaches have taught an actor to do an accent perfectly - only to have a director (or in one case, a test audience for a movie) reject the results. This can be disheartening for an accent coach - but in reality, all accent work involves a degree of compromise. One thing all accent coaches know is that everyone has an opinion on accents. Our job is to find that sweet spot, where the actor is basking close to the sunlit peaks of accent heaven - but not so close that they are in danger of plummeting into the Uncanny Valley!


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