The Uncanny Stepford Valley

DeepNostalgia's animation of old photos is creepy in a new way.

Posted Feb 28, 2021

You’ve probably heard about MyHeritage.com‘s DeepNostalgia service that animates photos of faces. That yellowing portrait of great grandma’s face now blinks, angles her head up and down, glances sideways, grows a wisp of a smile. People are reporting being quite moved by this reanimation of lost loved ones, which does not surprise me since the tech is so good at what it does.

Here’s a sample:

Very impressive…

…and not uncanny, as in “The Uncanny Valley” in which a simulated person falls creepily short of being lifelike in some inexpressible way. You could definitely fool me with these.

DeepNostalgia instead plunges us into the next valley beyond the uncanny one (and connected to it), because while taken one at a time, they’re very convincing, there’s something off about them after you’ve seen a bunch of them.

Take a look at this thread of artworks and famous photos animated using DeepNostalgia and see if you reacted the way I did.

OK, welcome back! :)

I found it fascinating and amazing. And I didn't feel creeped out by the technique. But I did get creeped out after seeing a lot of these in a row, because I feel like I’ve visited a ward of people suffering from diminished affect, which is not how I'd like to memorialize my grandparents. Welcome to The Uncanny Stepford Valley. (SPOILER: The wives in suburban Stepford are life-like robots programmed to docilely satisfy their husband’s every whim.)

Given how expressive today’s animated features are, I have no doubt these sort of reanimations will quickly escape from Stepford. In fact, the technology may well be advanced by the animation industry that, for all I know, already has a giant bank of buttons with labels like “Realizes something unpleasant,” “Struggles to accept the truth,” and “Sorrowful but brave resolve” that it can apply to the next Moana or Soul.

Sure, the possibilities for manipulating real-life videos for nefarious purposes are all too real. But even if we avoid such scenarios (Narrator: They won’t), it would be disappointing just to recognize that our deepest emotions can be so well learned and recreated.

But didn’t Meryl Streep already teach us that?