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Digital Actors and Copyright - Part Two

Spiderman 2 and Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events - The Digital Clone

Efforts are being made to create digital actors - computer generated creations that look, move and speak like the actors on whom they are modeled.

With living actors, a laser scan can be used to capture an actor’s features and body proportions for use in a digital model. Preexisting materials, such as photographs, film footage, recordings of a performer’s voice, and the like, can be used to construct a digital model of an actor, living or dead. When Brandon Lee died during the filming of The Crow, digitally modified outtakes from an earlier scene were used to finish the film. Virtual versions of Oliver Reed and John Candy were used to finish scenes in The Gladiator and Wagons East after their deaths.

For Spiderman 2, the film’s creators wanted realistic digital versions of actors Tobey Maguire and Albert Molina, that could “zoom through the air, around skyscrapers, over trains, and underwater, emoting all the while” and looking indistinguishable from the living actors. The two stars each spent a day in the laboratory. They sat on a “light stage” while four still cameras photographed their heads and faces as they made a variety of expressions, lit from numerous angles. Laser scans and plaster casts were made of their faces and heads, in order to create digital three dimensional models of their likenesses. These models were manipulated frame by frame, using photographs and footage of the actors, and software was used to calculate lighting changes.

The creators of the film Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events needed the toddler character, Sunny Baudelaire—played by 18 month old twins—to do things like hang from a table by her teeth and catch a wooden spindle in her mouth. So they created a CGI double. They couldn’t do this by using a laser scan to create an image of either toddler,since that would have required her to stand perfectly still, without breathing, for 38 seconds. Furthermore, the digital Sunny would be seen in close-up, and it was important “not to draw attention to the fact that the screen-filling image of the toddler smiling at the audience, with the spindle clenched in her teeth” was a digital recreation.

Therefore, Industrial Light and Magic took hundreds of still photos and videos of the twins to capture every conceivable facial feature. Images of Sunny would be required to bite things, so the twins were videotaped stuffing toys and other objects in their mouths. These all served as references in creating a computer model of Sunny that adhered to the baby’s facial geometry -“the precise size and shape of the eyeballs, the length of her eyelashes, the thickness of her cheek, and her baby-fine hair that curls just so at the nape of the neck.” A complex version of motion capture was also used to create the digital Sunny’s movement. It took Industrial Light and Magic six months to complete a scene where Sunny’s big brother hurls a wooden spindle at her, and she jumps up and catches it in her teeth, turning forward and smiling, spindle in mouth.43 As the simulated Sunny’s head turned, her eyelids and eyes were slightly adjusted, one-24th of a second at a time, “so it looked as if the baby was staring into the camera. The eyes—usually a dead giveaway that strips a simulation of its reality - seem to sparkle with life.”

It takes a great deal of work, time and creativity to create a single frame embodying a high quality digital character. John Gaeta, the award winning visual effects supervisors on the Matrix movies, has said that it is technically possible to create digital doubles of movie stars, “but only with an enormous amount of finesse and effort. We’re just scratching the surface of how to simulate all the nuance and detail of the human face as it emotes and speaks.” The technique may not yet, or ever, be ready for sensitive digital performers. But it is clearly useful in many other contexts, including action films and science fiction.

Digital Actors and Copyright - Part Three