Computer Graphics World

July-Aug-Sept 2021

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6 cgw j u ly • a u g u s t • s e p t e m b e r 2 0 2 1 I t is known as the "uncanny valley," a term describing that sense of unease in response to highly realistic human- oid robots and lifelike computer-gen- erated human characters that imperfectly resemble a human being. For quite some time now, those working in computer graphics have made strides toward crossing the uncanny valley. One of those initial big steps was the long-awaited Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within (July 2001), the first photoreal computer-animated feature film from Square Pictures. Using then cutting-edge technology, the project received mixed reviews, many appreciating the technical achievement, others calling the characters "creepy." Either way, the film greatly exceeded its budget and contributed to the end of Square Pictures. There were other noteworthy examples that followed, before the next big milestone moment for digital humans on-screen: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (December 2008), about a character who ages back- ward. In his young-appearing version, the character is played by actor Brad Pitt; in his older appearance, he is a CG human created by Digital Domain. During the past two years, more signifi- cant progress has been made in terms of creating realistic digital humans for films and television. In 2019, a digital fountain of youth gave several leading actors the opportunity to play characters at extremely younger ages throughout The Irishman, Gemini Man, and Captain Marvel, thanks to leading-edge work by Industrial Light & Magic, Weta Digital, and Lola. Also that year, ILM created a young Sara Connor, John Connor, and T-800 for an opening sequence in Terminator: Dark Fate. And, Gradient Effects created a younger version of the character played by John Goodman in flash- back sequences for the episodic television series Righteous Gemstones. In the past several months, Digital Domain has used a hybrid age-blending technique to add years to soccer phenom David Beck- ham for a malaria-awareness short film. And, the studio brought famed coach Vince Lombardi back from the dead for a Super Bowl presentation. A year prior, Digital Do- main re-created a lifelike Martin Luther King Jr. as he recited the "I Have a Dream" speech for a VR experience called The March. Weta Digital additionally generated a cyber lead for the film Alita: Battle Angel, while Disney Research has been actively pushing the state-of-the-art in creating and animating high-quality digital humans for visual effects over the past decade. And, Epic Games, Tencent, 3Lateral, Vicon, and Cubic Motion developed Siren, a high-fidel- ity digital human driven in real time by a live actress. Those are but a few of the impres- sive examples we have seen fairly recently. Studios behind work such as this utilize their own type of secret sauce. Never- theless, creating a realistic digital human generally involves two phases: capturing an actor's performance and applying it to the character, and creating the actual character. The steps, techniques, and technologies are complex and continually evolving. And when all is said and done, the character is rendered and inserted into the film, game, or other intended application. Truly amazing stuff, really. But that is the tip of the proverbial iceberg. The jaw-drop- ping moments that today have us pondering whether we have crossed the uncanny valley bridge is the work being done with autono- mous real-time digital humans. The Digital Humans Group Digital Domain remains at the forefront of creating realistic digital humans. In fact, the studio has a long history of building digital humans, craing realistic crea- tures, and capturing actors, using various technologies to accomplish those goals. And for a long time, most of the tools and technologies were developed to serve the needs of a particular production — not always the best process given the time and work required. In early 2017, the studio began looking at some new types of facial and performance capture for better translation onto a realistic digital human or creature. It was around this time that Marvel approached the studio, looking for new ways to better portray an Soul Searching EVOLVING PHOTOREALISTIC CG HUMANS INTO REAL-TIME AUTONOMOUS CHARACTERS BY KAREN MOLTENBREY

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