Digital DNA
Issue: Volume 40 Issue 6: (Nov/Dec 2017)

Digital DNA

During recent years, the CG industry has overcome many daunting hurdles, but one that still remains is the Uncanny Valley. Indeed, we are inching closer and closer to achieving a computer-generated human that is indistinguishable from a real person. And MPC’s work for Blade Runner 2049 gained us even more ground.

How ironic it is that Blade Runner 2049 focuses on bioengineered humans made to pass as the real thing, while one of the supposed engineered characters in the movie was not an actress, but indeed a photorealistic digital model.

In the 1982 Blade Runner, Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford) is a so-called blade runner, an agent who hunts down and terminates replicants, which are androids that look like real human beings. In the course of his mission, he meets Rachael (Sean Young), a replicant who evokes human emotion, blurring the line between what’s human and what’s not. 

Blade Runner 2049 picks up the story 30 years in the future, where bioengineered replicants have been integrated into society as servants and slaves.

A replicant named K is hired as a blade runner, an agent who now hunts down and terminates rogue replicants. During his pursuit, he finds the remains of Rachael, who appears to have died during an emergency C-section, indicating that replicants are capable of giving birth. K must now hunt down the replicant child, fathered by Deckard. 

In this sequel, Ford reprises his role, but a CG human takes Young’s place. In the film, archival footage and stills of Young from the original Blade Runner are used to represent Rachael. Additionally, Young’s likeness was digitally superimposed onto a stand-in, to briefly portray Rachael in Deckard’s hallucination. It is also used to portray a replicant that is physically identical to the original version of Rachael with the exception of eye color.

The Digital Process

Replicating Rachael for Blade Runner 2049 was both a technical and creative challenge for the team at MPC, led by VFX Supervisor Richard Clegg, who worked closely with Director Denis Villeneuve and Production VFX Supervisor John Nelson.

One of the major challenges was how to approach the CG sculpt of Rachael’s head. Blade Runner was filmed more than 30 years ago, and actress Sean Young was younger at the time, with different features.

MPC’s team started off with a detailed present-day scan of Sean Young’s head, captured on the ICT Light Stage. This scan was used as a reference for MPC’s artists to hand model an anatomically accurate 3D skull. Because the skull is something that changes very little over time, it was a good foundation for MPC to build its 20-year-old digital Rachael from. The digital sculpt gave the team a clear idea of the proportions of her head, including the bridge of her nose, cheekbones, and jawline.

After the CG skull was accurately re-created, it was lined up against scenes from the original 1982 movie. The available footage of Rachael wasn’t always ideal due to the dark and contrast lighting, with a shallow depth of field that regularly put her in soft focus. As a result, a great deal of guesswork was required. MPC’s 3D modeling artists then spent many hours sculpting the rest of the head over these images until they had created an identical match.

With the head sculpt completed, MPC began working on the character’s hair and color textures. The hair was styled using MPC’s proprietary groom software, Furtility, built by MPC’s R&D team. The Furtility tool was used to match Rachael’s hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes from her opening scene in Blade Runner.

To test whether it had accomplished a perfect likeness, MPC decided to re-create three shots from the original movie using the digital character. The CG head was then composited and re-animated over top of the real footage. 

“We invited the filmmakers to see if they were able to identify the digital double from the real actress,” says Clegg.

“We knew we were on the right track as this proved difficult to do!”

A CG Replicant

For Blade Runner 2049, a body double acted out the performance with Harrison Ford, and MPC’s job was to replace the head with its photoreal CG head. Multiple witness cameras were set up to shoot each take and used to get precise roto-animation of the body double as well as track the animated stage lighting.

During the shoot, MPC’s on-set team also captured videogrammetry of the performance using Dimensional Imaging’s DI4D capture rig. They captured Sean Young and the body double, as both, directed by Villeneuve, reenacted the performance for every shot. At the same time, they also used MPC’s FACS capture kit to acquire an array of facial poses and expressions.

When it came to animating the shots, the videogrammetry data served as a valuable reference; however, the character’s entire performance was hand animated by MPC’s artists. This animation technique gave the animators more flexibility and the director more control. Hundreds of facial shapes were built, all modeled against footage of Young in order to maintain the likeness. Every detail was important to the animators, from the shapes that her mouth makes when she talks to the number of folds in her eyelids.

MPC has also revealed it has a secret R&D lab, named “Shadow Lab,” at its studio, developing a number of different new technologies, including digital humans.