Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Ed Ulbrich: How Benjamin Button got his face

By Shelby F.

Imagine that you are sitting on your couch at home, enjoying a bowl of popcorn while watching a movie. What's going through your mind? Is it the plot line of the movie? Are you debating which character is most attractive, or are you just thinking about how delicious your popcorn is? Let's face it; when you are watching a movie the last thing that's on your mind is the creation of the flick. Things like how much time and research someone spent on perfecting a special effect, or the challenges that arose in the making of the movie are not brought to your attention. Ed Ulbrich, a 'digital effect guru' from Digital Domain, explains the great lengths his crew of technologists went to create the special effects in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.

If you have not seen the movie, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is a story about a man who was born with a disease. He was born old, and lived his life in reverse becoming younger and younger each day. In the talk, Ed Ulbrich states that this story had been floating around Hollywood for around half a century, and was not pursued due to complications with technology. In other words, depicting a man aging backwards was deemed impossible because technology was simply not ready for that much complexity. When I heard this I thought: Why be side tracked by the under-developed state of technology? Why not just hire multiple actors of varied ages to play Benjamin Button? That seemed to be an easy solution that was very manageable. Ed answered my question with the fact that these men would not have the same facial features, therefore the same effect would not be created if Benjamin was played by one actor only. This is where the long journey of creating Benjamin Button started, and what lead Ed Ulbrich's team into finding new discoveries in digital technology.

Ed's crew began with the traditional process of elimination. They brainstormed many different ways on how they could take one actor and convincingly make him appear 40 to 45 years older. The crew considered applying makeup, where they would add on to Brad Pitt's face (he was cast in the role of Benjamin Button) and create wrinkles, saggy skin, age spots etc. This was quickly ruled out as they realized the makeup wouldn't hold up. They also ruled out the idea of having multiple actors to play Benjamin, as I stated earlier. Then they stumbled across the idea of creating a completely digital head that had all of Brad's facial features. This head would be able to apply the same facial features on Benjamin's face while he was aging, so that throughout the movie the character looked like he was all one person. In a nut shell, body actors would be playing the role of Benjamin Button while the neck and up would be completely generated digitally. Ed and his team of technologists easily agreed that this solution would be most effective and suitable for the movie. The only problem was that the team did not know how to create the digital head so that it looked realistic. The crew had to figure out a way to hold up the first hour of the movie with a character who was completely digital from the neck up. Mind you, this has never been done before. They were under a lot of pressure; loads of money and big reputations were at stake. If the digital head didn't look just right in the movie, much would be lost.

In order for the team to achieve this, they went through tons of research, experiments, and participated in many group meetings to discuss solutions and put together ideas. Their main focus was to make sure that Benjamin could do everything that a human being was capable of doing. They initially explored the world of motion capture, where little reflective markers are stuck on to a body, and as the body moves infared sensors read the markers and translate the movements digitally creating an exact model of the body in action. This solution was almost perfect, the only issue was that it did not capture the movement of skin which was needed to display wrinkles and other attributes of old age. So from there on, the crew discovered contouring. What they did was apply phosphorus makeup to a human's face, and when the face was captured by cameras the digital image was very realistic and translated the movement of the skin and muscle in the face effectively. This was the breakthrough point for Ed Ulbrich and his team. They now knew that it was possible to capture every movement of the face digitally. All they had to do now was use this contouring process on Brad Pitt's face and age his face by re-targeting. Once that was completed, the last thing the crew had to do was synchronize the body actors and the digital head so that they moved in unison. This was a whole new challenge on its own, so I won't be getting into it. But as you look back on the process it's amazing how much blood and sweat went into making one tiny effect in a movie, and how far technology has come today.

As Ed Ulbrich explained the steps it took to create Benjamin's face, I was caught off guard by the level of complexity technology has managed to reach in the world today, and couldn't help but wonder if technology has any limitations. Think about it; if Ed's crew can figure out a way to effectively imitate the movement and behavior of human's faces, can't the technology build a perfect replica of the entire body? This would change the whole face of technology and would most likely replace actors one day.

1 comment:

  1. Whoa....I can't beleive thats CGI!!!! Its pretty much flawless! Its very difficult to create a convincing humanoid, especially a human character with CGI but they really pulled that off. When I first saw it, I thought it was Brad Pitt wearing makeup.