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THE CUTTING EDGE: FOCUS ON TECHNOLOGY | SPECIAL COVERAGE:
Focus on Siggraph

Old Actors Never Die; They Just Get Digitized

For better or for worse, advances in animation technology promise to bring forth virtual thespians, screen creatures that can walk, talk, emote, react--everything but complain about the size of their dressing room.

August 09, 1999|KAREN KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Travolta made a comeback. So did Donny Osmond, Drew Barrymore and Burt Reynolds. But silver-screen legend Marlene Dietrich is attempting the most unlikely Hollywood comeback of all.

Dietrich's resurgence, should it come to pass, won't be based on a breakthrough role, a studio's marketing genius or a stint in drug rehab. Rather, the sultry actress--who died in 1992--would owe her cinematic rebirth to computer graphics technology.

At Virtual Celebrity Productions in West Los Angeles, a state-of-the-art system for tracking the facial movements of a live actor is being used to animate a 3-D "digital clone" of the German-born star. A stylized version of the actress will be dispatched this year to Germany, where she will greet visitors at a film museum. The company plans to follow up with a realistic-looking digital Dietrich that can star in movies, television shows and commercials.

"Within the next 10 years, she will be fully brought back to life," said Dietrich's grandson, Peter Riva, who licensed the actress' image to Virtual Celebrity Productions. "Dietrich's career is going to be here for 300 years."

For better or for worse, a new generation of digital actors--some brand-new, others resurrected--is making its way to Hollywood, thanks to advances in animation modeling techniques. The technologies will be showcased this week at Siggraph 99, the annual conference of the Assn. for Computing Machinery's subgroup for graphics, which is taking place at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

Though the technology to create convincing digital actors still lies in the future, it's not too early for Hollywood to project--and hype--the possibilities.

"I see in the future a digital actor being nominated for an Academy Award," said Tim Sarnoff, executive vice president and general manager of Sony Pictures Imageworks in Culver City. "Twenty years from now, five years from now--who knows? It might create a stir that the best-actor nomination would go to a computer."

Sony, Pixar, Industrial Light & Magic and others have already produced digital actors with key roles in feature films. Among the best examples are the mouse that stars in the forthcoming "Stuart Little," the insects of "A Bug's Life" and Jar Jar Binks, the Gungan sidekick from "Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace."

Creating digital human actors is exponentially more difficult. While they have been used in crowds and as virtual stunt doubles, none has played a role requiring an extreme close-up because it wouldn't stand up to close scrutiny.

"Everybody looks at [humans] every single day, and even the untrained eye can tell when it's not right," said Derald Hunt, computer graphics supervisor for Kleiser Walczak Construction Co., a North Adams, Mass., special-effects firm that is a pioneer in the digital-actor field. "You can't get away with anything."

The textures of hair and clothing are still difficult to reduce to zeros and ones--the building blocks of digital data. But perhaps the hardest thing to fake is muscle movement. Computer graphics specialists around the country are trying to develop models with anatomically correct motion built in. For instance, a digital actor's arm muscles would flex automatically when an animator moves its hand.

Faces present a similar challenge, since their muscle movements are extremely precise. Even shading an eyeball so that it reflects the proper amount of light is a challenge yet to be solved, said Kleiser Walczak co-founder Jeff Walczak, who coined the term "synthespian" in 1988 to describe his firm's digital actors.

But the situation is improving with the help of faster microprocessors and new computer graphics tricks.

Engineers at Virtual Celebrity Productions have customized a projection-and-sensor system made by the Belgian firm Eyetronics that can record an actor's face on film and translate it into a three-dimensional model in a computer. The system takes as many as 5,000 measurements for each frame of film--an impressive feat considering there are 30 frames of film per second.

That system is combined with technology to keep track of facial features--such as the tip of the nose and the corners of the mouth--from frame to frame. With tracking, the number of measurements needed is reduced by a factor of 10 or more. Then those movements are used to animate a virtual actor, such as Marlene Dietrich, said Barnabas Takacs, Virtual Celebrity's director of research and development.

When Dietrich or one of her fellow "digital clones" is ready to debut on film, a live actor would play the clone's role on the movie set. The animation would be rendered and substituted afterward, Takacs said.

Other computer graphics experts are focusing on how digital actors behave.

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