In 1985, pretty much every teenager in America saw Back to the Future. Where some found a cautionary if comic tale about the unexpected dangers of tinkering with technology, Paul Debevec had a different reaction: He wanted to make a car fly. And he did. A CG car, but still — it counts.
Six years after the film came out, the then–University of Michigan undergrad devised a method for transforming digitized pictures of his 1980 Chevette into a texture-mapped, 3-D model that flew across his computer screen.
"That's when I started photographing objects, deriving 3-D geometry from the photos, projecting the images back on and then creating these animations," Debevec explains. "And that's kind of still how we digitize faces."
While you won't recognize Debevec's face, you'll recognize a face he's made. Over the last decade, Debevec, now 43 and chief visual officer at USC's Institute for Creative Technology in Playa Vista, has generated digital doubles of Brad Pitt for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Tom Cruise for Oblivion, Angelina Jolie for Maleficent and Zoe Saldana and Sam Worthington for their stylized Na'vi versions in Avatar, among others.
His patented light stage has an 8-foot-high geodesic dome fitted with more than 12,000 LEDs and seven high-definition sports photography cameras. Debevec and his team photograph actors under set lighting conditions that capture not just the superficial movements of their skin as they perform but the subsurface movements as well.
In as little as 30 scans, they can generate a full-spectrum facial map, accurate down to the pore — essentially, a hyper-realistic CG human puppet that can be animated by a visual effects artist during production, which is where things get a little tricky ethically.
Debevec's digital doubles are so accurate that some worry they'll replace flesh-and-blood performers. Human actors age, gain and lose weight, miss their mark and sometimes die before completing a project.
Not only are Debevec's doubles impervious to those expensive-to-solve human issues, they've been used to remedy them: His technology was instrumental in creating the holographic Michael Jackson that performed live onstage with dozens of real dancers at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards.
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But Debevec says digital doubles aren't a threat to performers. "The best digital performances are still piloted by real actors."
Instead they offer a wider range of possibilities, liberating actors from their physical limitations, allowing them to take on roles outside their conventional "type." And since digital doubles can complete a movie in the case of untimely death (as with Paul Walker on Furious 7), "high-risk" actors such as Lindsay Lohan and Charlie Sheen once again will be able to get insurance.
Certainly the wide adoption of Debevec's technology may have unforeseen consequences in the future — we learned that much from Marty McFly in 1985. But then you picture a world in which a John C. Reilly could pilot a Channing Tatum the way Sam Worthington piloted his Na'vi body in Avatar and suddenly the future just seems a little brighter.