Top of the Morning, Oct. 26, 2017

Top of the Morning, Oct. 26, 2017

The News-Gazette, it turns out, played a role in kickstarting PAUL DEBEVEC's career.

"I delivered papers for a few years in the early '80s," he said, "using the money to help save up for a Commodore 64 computer, on which I did my first computer graphics."

Uni High, too, gets credit. Debevec said his decision to join the yearbook photography staff in the summer of 1986 gave him "initial inspiration for high-dynamic-range photography."

Debevec is now a Hollywood heavyweight with a reputation that continues to grow. Today, the Urbana native will receive the Progress Medal, the most prestigious award handed out by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers. It recognizes outstanding technical contributions to the progress of the engineering phases of the motion picture, television or motion-imaging industries.

We last profiled the Oscar-winning "Master of Light" after he went to the White House to produce a 3-D portrait of Barack Obama in 2014. Where does tonight's award rank?

"Probably nothing can compare to the opportunity to practice your life's work for a sitting president of the United States," he said. "But this award is indeed incredibly meaningful since it recognizes probably my most impactful technological invention."

The Progress Medal honors Paul Debevec's "achievements and ongoing work in techniques for illuminating CG objects based on measurement of real-world illumination and their application in films like 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,' 'District 9' and 'Avatar.'"

The 1988 Uni High grad is currently senior staff engineer at GoogleVR, an adjunct research professor at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies and co-chair of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Science & Technology Council.

"The technology I developed provides visual-effects technicians an accurate and repeatable way to make a CGI creature or character look like it's really there in a live-action scene, with the correct lighting," he said. "The technique involves taking a panoramic photo using high-dynamic-range photography in the location where you would like to put the digital character to record the color and intensity of the light coming from every direction, and then using that image of the light as a light source in a computer graphics lighting-simulation algorithm to light the character properly for where it is in the environment.

"All of the light in a scene — from yellow light sources on the ceiling, to blue light coming through windows, to green light bouncing up from the grass — will be accounted for and simulated properly," he said. "I demonstrated the technique in a few computer animations — 'Rendering with Natural Light,' 'Fiat Lux' and 'The Parthenon' — and it soon took off in the movie (and also television) industry.

"I actually got the initial inspiration for high-dynamic-range photography when I joined the yearbook photography staff of University High School as a junior. I was testing shooting black-and-white negative film, and shot some long-exposure images of setting off little fireworks in my mom's backyard just north of Urbana one night. When I saw the long dark streaks the flying sparks left on the negatives, I realized they were at least hundreds of times brighter than what the film could record.

"I later became interested to find a way to record the full range of light in a scene, including its light sources, and be able to replicate those kinds of bright streaks in CGI. And once I could record the full range of light in a scene, I realized you could use it to digitally illuminate CGI objects and creatures and actors."