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[Video] What's It Like to Become a 3D Actor?

The Creators Project's new documentary explores how researchers and technologists are bringing Hollywood's digital humans to life.

In ReForm, a new franchise from The Creators Project, we meet the artists creating and re-appropriating the latest technologies in various areas of creative expression. 

The actors you see on computer screens, TV sets, and in movies themselves are changing—and not just because they're getting older. Advancements in 3D scanning, motion capture, and digital rendering are transforming the world of the moving image, and thanks to the work of innovators like University of Southern California (USC) researcher Paul Debevec, the individuals performing your favorite stories now skirt the line between human and hologram, man and machine. From high-budget blockbusters like Avatar, to his ongoing Activision collaboration on CGI character, "Digital Ira," Debevec is helping introduce the world to the concept of the 3D actor. But while the models and renderings become ever more realistic by the day, one major question remains: What's it like to actually meet your own digital double?

In The Creators Project's new documentary, Hollywood's Digital Humans, we talk to Ari Shapiro, a fellow researcher at USC's Institute of Creative Technology (ICT), who teamed up with Debevec and Activision's Research and Development Director Javier van der Pahlen to develop Digital Ira, a real-time 3D rendering of his own motion-captured face. Ari's one of a growing number of actors who have confronted near-perfect replications of their own likenesses. Understandably, he had an unsettling reaction to meeting his digital alter ego—which, incidentally, is how Ira got its name.

“They would do the capture and then I would walk by the offices of the team and they would say, ‘Hey, you should see what we’re doing with digital Ari,” Shapiro recounts to The Creators Project. “At some point it felt a little bit too personal, where they almost have a voodoo doll where they can be sort of manipulating and doing things without my knowledge. So I suggested to Paul that he reverse the letters of my name and call it Digital Ira, and create some kind of distance.”

Image courtesy of Image Metrics

For Digital Ira's 2009 predecessor, Digital Emily, Debevec and his team reconstructed a believable computer-generated model of The Young and the Restless actress Emily O'Brien's face. As vivid and believable as the result was, Debevec tells us that each frame of the video took about 30 minutes to render—their 2012 breakthrough, however, which combvines Digital Ira with a game engine, builds out 30 frames in a single second.

It's this "live" feeling that makes the creation of digital actors so alluring. "They’re able to capture all of your expressions, 360°, all the follicles of your hair and everything, so it can basically duplicate you," explains actor Stephen Lang, who played the villainous Colonel Quaritch in James Cameron's Avatar. He enjoys the challenge of acting via 3D replica, and is prepared for the consequences. "It’d be strange if like, 30 years after I’m dead, I show up doing porno," he jokes.

Image courtesy of the USC Institute for Creative Technologies

That particular sort of fully-autonomous digital actor hasn't been developed quite yet, Devebec points out ("Every digital character that you've seen in a movie so far or a video game, if you are believing the performance and reading some real emotion out of it... it's because there was a real actor that actually gave that performance"), but he sees this technology as more than just a tool for creating more realistic robo-battles and digital surrogates. "Maybe it really is, you know, that you are a set of atoms that exist on this Earth with needs and an ability to produce and give and contribute in some way and that that's gonna distinguish us from any kind of computer algorithm. Maybe we'll have to answer difficult questions, 'cause if a computer algorithm can do that at some point or if we embody it within a robot then, you know..."

"Fortunately," he concludes, "We have Hollywood to imagine all of these situations for us."

GIF courtesy of  the USC Institute for Creative Technologies 

Watch our new documentary, ReForm | Hollywood's Digital Humans, above, and check out the links below for more on the future of digital acting:

We Spoke to the Digital Specialist Behind Obama's 3D-Printed Portrait

You Can Finally Become a Video Game Character Thanks to 3D Scanning

Distorted 3D-Scanned Faces Are the Stuff Nightmares Are Made Of