Expanding the Roles of Digital Characters
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 1: (Jan/Feb 2017)

Expanding the Roles of Digital Characters

For a few decades now, feature films have been making the impossible, possible – thanks to the use of computer graphics. Digital characters, in particular, have assumed larger and larger roles over the years, as technological advances have surged on a number of fronts: motion capture, modeling, rendering, lighting, and more.

We’ve been introduced to many amazing CG characters, from realistic humans to emotive creatures whose performances stand up alongside their real actor counterparts. As their function evolved into leads and main characters, so, too, has the technology necessary for their expanding roles. For instance, advances in skin shading and subsurface scattering helped give us Dobby and Kreacher from Harry Potter. Advances in motion capture and facial capture enabled Weta Digital to acquire Andy Serkis’s performance for Gollum during filming for The Lord of the Rings, as they had done for Serkis’s performance as Caesar in Planet of the Apes – perhaps two of the most memorable digital film characters to date.

During the past year alone, Serkis’s performance has given rise to the all-CG Supreme Leader Snoke in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Then there is the entire CG cast from The Jungle Book, with the exception of the human boy Mowgli, made “real” by translating photographic references into detailed animation, taking into account skin and muscle movement, and fur simulation. Last summer, digital Orcs assumed starring roles in Warcraft when ILM upped its game in relation to skin shading, on-set motion capture, and, of course, facial capture and animation. And, the skin movement of actor Mark Rylance helped Weta animators create a nuanced performance for the CG giant in The BFG.

Without question, upping the ante in terms of digital characters is a building project of sorts, whereby new tools and techniques are required as directors conceive new and unique opportunities for these characters. In this issue, we are highlighting two other applications involving CG characters.

The first appears in Rogue One (see “Between the Lines,” page 8). There is a four-decade span between the release of A New Hope (1977) and Rogue One (2016), though in the Star Wars story timeline, the first film in the series to be released, New Hope, follows the events from the latest release. ILM used references of original models and cutting-edge technology to achieve a cohesive look that bridged the two films, despite the many years between their creation.

There was one major hiccup, however. Actor Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin, a central figure in New Hope, had died in 1994. Rather than recast the role, the crew at ILM captured an actor’s performance and applied it to a CG model of Cushing as Tarkin. The artists also created a digital Princess Leia.

The second application uses facial and motion capture and blends it with advances in real-time and projection technologies, enabling the character Ariel to deliver a unique performance in the theatrical presentation of “The Tempest” (see “Playacting,” page 14). Here, the technique is presented center stage, so the audience can see it in action as the actor performs his role alongside the other actors while the CG results are presented on screens around the stage.

In a span of 30 years, various CG developments have spawned many unforgettable characters, and it all started with the stained-glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes. Where will it lead us next?