Presidential project was a bust
Paul Debevec isn't allowed to say exactly when he went to the White House to help make a 3D scan of President Barack Obama. He can only reveal it was some time last year.
But the 1988 University Laboratory High School grad can talk now about how the portrait, believed to be the first made in 3D of a sitting head of state, came together.
"Everything happened pretty much flawlessly that day," he said by phone from his office at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, where he is associate director of graphics research.
For the project, Debevec and USC co-workers built a special mobile version of its LightStage, based on technology Debevec came up with years ago.
They pulled 50 custom light sources from the LightStage and put them on an aluminum gantry that could be shipped to the nation's capital and wheeled into the White House.
They set up the mobile LightStage in the State Dining Room the day before Obama would sit for scanning.
"They had a place for us right below the portrait of Lincoln," Debevec said.
Because the president is so busy, the Smithsonian-USC teams set up the LightStage beforehand, using three different Obama stand-ins.
"All shared a different kind of similarity to the president in terms of shape of head, height and skin tone," Debevec said. "We made sure it worked for all of the people."
(Debevec was the proxy for height — both he and the president stand 6 feet 2 inches tall.)
Once the system was running and tested, Debevec, three of his co-workers and a team from the Smithsonian returned the next day to work with Obama.
"He sat in the device with 50 lights and 14 digital still cameras pointed at him, all framed on his face," Debevec said. "There's barely 5 millimeters of room on either side of him to get all those photos in focus."
The data captured was then processed by 3D graphics experts at Autodesk to create final high-resolution models. Then it was printed using an industrial-grade, high-res 3D printer.
"For the 1:1 bust, in a process called Selective Laser Sintering, a laser melted nylon powder into a highly accurate and durable print," Debevec said. "Given the size of print — the bust stands 19 inches tall and weighs almost 13 pounds — the printing process took 42 hours, after which the print cooled down for 24 hours."
The 3D portrait of Obama was unveiled this week at the Smithsonian Castle in Washington and will remain on display through the end of the month. Then it will join other presidential portraits at the National Portrait Gallery.
So how did Debevec become involved in the presidential project? Tagged by MIT's Technology Review as "Hollywood's Master of Light," he gave a keynote talk a year or so ago at a Smithsonian conference on 3D technology.
He spoke of his past projects lighting and digitizing people, objects and environments, including movie stars — Tom Cruise for "Oblivion," Angelina Jolie for "Maleficent" and George Clooney and Sandra Bullock for "Gravity."
"I talked a little bit about these projects, and this meshed with the Smithsonian's desire to do a 3D scan of the president of the United States," he said. "It's an idea that had been coming."
One reason for that: Gunter Waibel, head of the Smithsonian Digitization Program Office, had noted that the Smithsonian Collection owns two plaster casts of the face of Abraham Lincoln.
"He thought it would be wonderful to use a new technology to do even better 3D scans of the current president," Debevec said.
As for President Obama, he was down with the project.
After he entered the State Dining Room, Debevec and team said hello and told him what would happen.
"He was incredibly presidential," Debevec said. "He was very interested in the technology, and he was very good in the light stage. He knew what kind of pose he wanted to do for this presidential portrait. He barely moved at all and the scans came out great."