Geri's Game is a remarkable short film for several reasons. One is that it perfectly exemplifies the nature of VR: The smoke and mirrors effect that is used to turn a partial simulation strip into a believable, living reality.
Another is that the film was Pixar's first attempt at playing with cloth animation. Whilst incredibly dated now in capability, it does not look it, due to the limitations of the setting. It shows just how much believability and credibility even simple fabric animations can bring to a VR.
The film was made in 1997, shortly after 'A Bug's Life', and uses the same technology from that era, by and large. As is usual for Pixar, it pushes the envelope a little from what was previously available. Specifically, it was Pixar's first attempt at having a human as a main character - and someone to focus visual attention on. This meant the face had to be both expressive and believable.
Additionally, it was designed to 'push the envelope' in terms of fabric animation.
Geri, the character from this short, makes a cameo appearance in Toy Story 2; the next Pixar feature film. He is the toy repairman who repairs Woody's arm.
The film opens on a park in Autumn. Leaves blow across the camera as an elderly gentleman plops himself down in one of the chairs of a seating area. He takes out a chessboard and lays it on the table, then sets out the pieces. He is playing white, and he lays out the pieces for his opponent, playing black.
He sits there looking nervous, but ready for the game to begin; a set of glasses perched on his beaky face. Then the camera pulls out to reveal that Geri is completely alone in the park. Not a single table is occupied, no-one approaching at all.
Geri is undeterred. He nervously pushes a pawn out, then shakily gets to his feet. He sets his glasses down, and totters over to the opposing chair where he sits down gently. Immediately he looks forwards with a sneer. Grabbing a black pawn he stamps it down aggressively and snorts. Then Geri stands up, totters back to the white side, sits down and puts his glasses on. He wrinkles his brow in thought and nervously moves another pawn.
Geri is playing both sides of the game, and not only that, but is playing two very different personalities: Nervous Geri and aggressive Geri. The camera moves back and forth between them as the match unfolds.
Nervous Geri places a knight, which aggressive Geri smashes away with a bishop, chortling gleefully. Nervous Geri stares in despair as he tries again and again. Each time you can see he's doing his best, but the pieces are smashed away from him ruthlessly, one by one.
Finally, nervous Geri is left with just his king, facing an armada of black pieces. He has nowhere to move. Every time he lifts the king to move it, aggressive Geri tuts or shakes his head smugly. Nervous Geri is not in check, but he has nowhere to move. It looks like game over. Nervous Geri gasps and clutches his shirt as his ticker gives in under the strain. He collapses to the floor, gasping.
Aggressive Geri sits there watching. He checks his own pulse, wondering why he is still alive. Then peers under the table. Zs soon as aggressive peers, nervous lifts his head up and whisks the board round 180 degrees, before sitting back on his seat, a little ruffled. Aggressive motions that its still nervous's turn and nervous makes his move. Lifting up the black queen it is now checkmate for white. Aggressive has lost, because he is apparently now playing white.
Muttering incoherently, aggressive Geri slams a pair of false teeth down on the table, which nervous Geri picks up and inserts into his mouth, grinning. By winning the match, he won use of the teeth. The camera slowly pans out, revealing Geri is alone at the table once more.
Through a little deception, a little imagination and the workings of a keen mind to put walls up round the outside reality, Geri manages to create a little world of his own in which he is able to spend a most satisfying afternoon playing chess. This is the lesson Geri's Game has to teach. A world doesn't have to be perfect, it just has to be strong enough for the mind to fill in the gaps, and it becomes, at least for a time, quite real, and with all the emotional effect of any interaction outside it.
Fabric and Body Language:
The use of fabric as an expressive medium is quite subtle in Geri's Game. The fabric being limited to Geri's suit. If you look closely at any moment in the film, you can see how Geri's suit is not part of him; it is a separate layer that covers him, on top of his skin and never quite touching. Geri moves inside the suit and the suit follows a frame or two later, shifting and settling with a physics engine's effects as Geri's skeleton moves with rigid body physics, affecting his skin covering those bones. The suit then reacts to that skin's movement, sinking slowly where the skin vacates, and being pulled along where the skin thrusts.
Although you do get a sense that Geri's suit is too large for him, overall, the effect works well. It is very hard to show the effect with stills, but even in a second's worth of actual film, you can see how his clothes both magnify and dampen the subtle changes in body-language, reinforcing his expressive gestures well.
Geri and the Uncanny Valley:
Geri is quite lucky for a CGI human. He never falls into the uncanny valley. This is for several reasons.
One, he is simply not realistic enough to be uncannilly close to human. He is a caricature with oversized features, and it helps to push him back, away from the valley. Skin and hair detailing was not advanced enough back in 1997 to fool anyone, so they simply did not try. This gives Geri's face a plastic-like sheen that again reinforces the difference between him and a human.
Secondly, Geri absolutely never looks into the camera. He's always focussed on his opponent or the board. This neatly avoids the issue of a truly wrong gaze, or dead eye syndrome. Had he looked into the camera, all his cuteness and charm would likely have melted away, and placed us firmly into the valley.