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With new chip technology, Hollywood digital effects are almost lifelike

January 7, 2009 | Chris Payatagool
Sphere.JPGBy Steve Johnson

With a big assist from Silicon Valley technology, a movie superstar like Angelina Jolie could keep starring as Lara Croft in "Tomb Raider" sequels - forever.

Aided by increasingly powerful microprocessors and incredibly sophisticated software, movie makers and video game developers are getting closer to achieving the holy grail of animation: creating computer-generated actors that are visually indistinguishable from real people. Consider it Hollywood's most special effect.

Experts say that could bring revolutionary changes for film lovers and game players. Stars could keep playing iconic roles even as they aged past the point of believability, like Jolie as Croft or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter. At the same time, video games could look more realistic - in fact, more like movies themselves.

"Basically anything a person can dream up, we'll be able to create," said Mark Starkenburg, chief executive of Santa Monica-based Image Metrics, which recently made a remarkably lifelike computer-generated video of a soap-opera actress using the latest chips from Advanced Micro Devices of Sunnyvale.

The video isn't perfect, however, and experts say chips and animation software need to get much better to be able to produce computer-generated actors that look identical to the original.

But "we may be getting to the tipping point," said Rick Bergman, general manager of AMD's graphics products group. "With what we're starting to deliver with our chips, the computing power is getting real close."

Over the past three decades, computer-produced graphics have created stunning visual effects in films such as "Alien," "Total Recall," "Jurassic Park," "Titanic" and "Lord of the Rings." Lately, increasing numbers - including all of the new Disney-Pixar collaborations, such as "Bolt" and the upcoming "Monsters vs. Aliens" - are shown in 3-D.

But while animators have been able to make astonishingly realistic-looking representations of buildings, trees and other objects, the complexity of the human face and its subtle emotions have proven too difficult to replicate.

For now, producers have generally avoided even trying to make digital characters that look like actual people. And when they have, they have often blundered into what those in the industry call the "uncanny valley." That's where animated faces seem so devoid of normal human expressiveness they appear zombielike, a problem critics claim especially cropped up in the 2004 movie "Polar Express" that starred a synthetic Tom Hanks.

To avoid that, movie producers sometimes get highly creative with camera angles or by cropping images, while video game makers often just show their characters from the back, said Scott Cronce, vice president of technology for Redwood City video game giant Electronic Arts.

But in creating its video of the television soap opera actress -- Emily O'Brien, who has appeared in "The Young and the Restless" -- Image Metrics found another solution. It used a device developed by the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, which can digitally capture enormous amounts of visual detail about human actors, including their faces.

In a sign of how rapidly the technology is developing, Image Metrics used AMD's latest graphics card to create the video, featuring powerful chips with twice the computing power of what was available just a year ago, said AMD spokesman Dave Erskine.

As even more powerful chips are developed, some experts say, it will become possible to create full-length movies featuring large numbers of animated actors with even more lifelike characteristics.

Computer generation gives film producers enormous creative flexibility. Besides allowing them to change an actor's appearance -- by digitally exaggerating their movements or facial expressions, for example -- it also makes it easy to create elaborate animated environments, which can be a lot cheaper than having to fly an entire movie crew to exotic locations to shoot scenes.

Moreover, being able to create digital characters that are indistinguishable from real people would enable performers who have grown older, or have even died, to continue appearing in movies, said Jules Urbach, who has licensed USC's technology to use in his Burbank animation business, LightStage.

Urbach said an actor in his 30s -- whom he declined to identify -- recently asked him to capture the man's image with LightStage so the actor can star in future animated films without ever looking a day older than he does now.

If needed, Urbach added, the actor's words could be digitally generated years from now through computerized voice reconstruction, a technology that also is rapidly advancing.

While all this might enable actors to collect movie royalties well past their prime, some critics have decried giving animators so much creative control. Yet Mark Friedlander, national director of new media for the Screen Actors Guild, said his members shouldn't panic yet over what he called "blurring the line between the real and the synthetic."

"It certainly is something we're beginning to watch," he said. But he added, "I don't really see technology in any way replacing performers. I see it enhancing the possibility of storytelling."


In making animated movies of people, producers in the past have used a method in which they pasted the actor"s body with sensors. Then the actor performs a series of movements, which are recorded in a form that can be used to make computer-generated representations of the same motions.

But it"s hard to place a sensor on an actor"s eye or tongue. And on the parts of a face where a sensor can be applied, the devices have trouble picking up every flicker of sarcasm, anger or fear. So to moviegoers, the animated versions wind up looking so devoid of normal human emotion they appear ghoulish or demonic.

To get around that problem, Santa Monica-based Image Metrics used a spherical device created by a researcher at the University of Southern California"s Institute for Creative Technologies, which rapidly photographs a broad range of human movements in varying lighting conditions without sensors.

Using the method with soap-opera actress Emily O"Brien, Image Metrics was able to capture far more facial detail of O"Brien than would have been possible previously. It then used Advanced Micro Devices" latest computer chips to process the data into an animated video of her that looks remarkably realistic.

[via Contra Costa Times]

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