Karen Moltenbrey Chief Editor
For years now, digital artists have been trying to solve one of the most difficult challenges in computer graphics today: the creation and animation of realistic digital humans. Indeed, feature-film studios—even television studios—have done a good job at digitally re-creating actors for scenes that are too dangerous for the real actor. In these instances, the digital stunt double is placed at a distance from the camera, often within a dimly lit environment.
Nevertheless, there are some digital facilities that have placed CG humans in the foreground of their productions. After investing untold sums of money, Square attempted to tackle this technological hurdle, and in 2001 released Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, featuring the first CG cast of realistic human actors in a full-length film. While the CG characters were amazing for the time, they were not quite real enough to satisfy theatergoers—in spite of the property’s built-in gamer audience accustomed to this type of imagery. As a result, the movie failed miserably at the box office, with losses estimated at more than $120 million. In 2004, cutting-edge performance capture helped bring the hyper-realistic characters of The Polar Express to virtual life. While some believed the unique look of the “actors” meshed well with those from the book on which the film was based, others stated that the characters looked “creepy.” Despite its technological achievements, the film failed to win an Oscar, or even a nomination, for this work.
Some of the stumbling blocks to creating a realistic CG human model then are the same ones artists are wrangling with now—skin, hair, lips, tongue, and eyes. These tasks are unquestionably difficult; yet, most modelers will agree that with today’s advanced tools, highly skilled artists can create a human model that looks fairly realistic. The problem comes when a person tries to animate the model, particularly the face; if the movement is not perfect, the flaws are readily apparent.
More recently, two companies—Digital Domain and Nvidia—took on the digital human challenge, re-creating two well known faces rather than a generic character. Digital Domain brought back to CG life the now-deceased popcorn pitchman Orville Redenbacher for a series of television commercials. And graphics chip giant Nvidia challenged its development team to re-create model/actress Adrianne Curry for one of its signature demos. Both efforts were highlighted this past August at SIGGRAPH. Nvidia detailed its various findings in sketches, the Computer Animation Festival, and more, as did Digital Domain. Although the Orville commercials were short-lived, Digital Domain is applying the knowledge it gained from that project to a future feature film that will contain digital actors in starring roles (the name of the film remains under wraps). As for Nvidia, it has already used a modified version of the skin shaders it created for Adrianne Curry in a demonstration involving subsurface lighting effects. And, based on past history, the company is likely to extend this work in another future graphics card demo featuring an attractive female character.
Presently, the quest to create a photoreal digital human continues, and with good reason. It opens the door for stars to create and license detailed replicas of their likeness without making a physical appearance, whether it’s in video games, commercials, movies, endorsements, media appearances, or event hosting. Of course, it also opens up the door to new legal debate, including copyright issues. Nevertheless, facilities like Nvidia and Digital Domain understand the importance of cracking the code to this important aspect of computer graphics, as a treasure trove of applications await.