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Paul Debevec casts off the plaster at Animfx

If you’ve ever wondered how Brad Pitt as Benjamin Button ‘aged backwards’, Paul Debevec would be a good man to ask. His Light Stage devices were used to help create photoreal digital faces in movies such as Spider Man 2, Superman Returns and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

The project he presented in Wellington was Digital Emily, almost a proof of concept. Paul Debevec leads the graphics laboratory at the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies (USCICT). He’s a geek, in the sense that he’s very passionate about some stuff that not a lot of us understand.

Digital Emily was a project to create a digitised face, capturing sufficient detail to use on film. The aim was to do away with the old method of 3D modelling which relies on taking a physical cast of the face with algenate, making a plaster positive from that mould, scanning the mould, and then producing a 3D computer model from the geometry captured by the scan. It’s messy and time consuming, and potentially fatal if you forget to put straws up the subject’s nose before casting the face.

The process is only suitable for certain things. Nobody wants to open their mouth or eyes when being cast; the level of detail a cast picks up is limited, the weight of the algenate can distort some facial features, and a cast only gives one expression.

Paul’s method is much cleaner. Here is a six minute version of the presentation the gave at Animfx. And here is a presentation from Ed Ulbrich of Digital Domain, with whom Paul’s USCICT worked to create the 325 digital face shots of Benjamin Button that make up most of the first hour of the movie.

Paul chaired the SIGGRAPH 2007 Computer Animation Festival, is a member of the Visual Effects Society, one of Animfx’s key sponsors, a member of the ACM SIGGRAPH Executive Committee and a big fan of moist chocolate cake. His website is here, and here is a more indepth explanation of the processes involved in creating digital Emily.

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