Digital actors get no respect from film directors and producers. In most cases, that has been for good reason. The so-called “synthespians” that have made it to the big screen have appeared stiff and unnatural looking when trying to walk, talk, and act. But resistance in Hollywood to the new generation of virtual humans is out of proportion to the quality of performances they are now capable of giving.
Fortunately, this may be about to change, thanks to an initiative by Scott Billups, a renowned synthetic character creator and CG filmmaker. His strategy for finding roles for digital actors has been to create the performers in the image of Hollywood's most appealing stars and, more important, to involve the film community in the process.
Indeed, he recently asked directors, producers, actors, cinematographers, and other influential film people to pick the best-looking features of the stars. He then combined the eyes, noses, lips, and some 20 other favorite features in perfect symmetry, according to a mathematical ratio linked to natural beauty, to build an "ideal" leading man and woman (see the latest versions of the couple below and in the feature "Beautiful People," pg. 28). "An enormous number of people have contributed to this project," notes Billups, who is putting the finishing touches on the digital duo for their debut in his own short film later this year. "Hollywood is vested in this."
How good is the final outcome likely to be? Referring to the man, who is the most complete, Billups contends that "physiologically, he is the perfect representation of the contemporary concept of handsome, applied to an ancient methodology for determining beauty. In other words, he's a good-looking dude."
Of course, there's more to being attractive than simply having the most beautiful and most symmetrical faces. In fact, the most popular actors do not necessarily have the best-looking features. For example, the actor with the highest "Q" rating (or popularity quotient), which correlates to box-office draw, is Julia Roberts. But her features received among the fewest votes of all the Hollywood stars. So, clearly, her personality and her ablity to connect with the audience are what set her apart.
What this suggests is that the real challenge will be to give this ideal-looking pair appealing personalities. And Billups, for one, does not believe that traditional kinematics, or physically animating characters, is the appropriate technique for conveying personality. The best way to do it is to capture performances from people who act for a living. "I've got 10,000 morph targets for the man, and even more for the woman," he says, "so they're going to move pretty realistically."
How far are we from seeing convincing performances from digital humans? "We're there," Billups insists. They may not stand up to extreme close-ups, but "they're ready for the 'two-shot,'" he says, referring to medium close-up shots with two actors on screen.
Whether these virtual people are ready for leading roles remains to be seen. But they will represent another chapter in the evolution of digital actors. At the very least, they may get Hollywood movers and shakers to sit up and take notice. And if they are able to create a splash and draw some attention to themselves, that achievement may be the biggest step they could take toward receiving the same respect reserved for real actors.