Uni High alum picks up second Academy Award for technical achievement

Uni High alum picks up second Academy Award for technical achievement

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — Two weeks ahead of Hollywood's biggest night, Paul Debevec was feted at a black-tie ceremony honoring the technological innovators in the film industry.

Debevec, a 1988 University Laboratory High School alumnus and senior scientist at Google VR, picked up his second Academy Award at the Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony, held Saturday at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

This one — presented by actor David Oyelowo, the evening's master of ceremonies — was a Technical Achievement Certificate, which Debevec, Timothy Hawkins and Wan-Chun "Alex" Ma won for the invention of the Polarized Spherical Gradient Illumination facial appearance capture method, and Xueming Yu for the design and engineering of the Light Stage X capture system.

In 2010, Debevec and three collaborators won a bronze Scientific and Engineering plaque with a miniature Oscar (all one piece) for creating earlier versions of the light stage system and the image-based facial rendering system developed for character relighting in motion pictures.

The groundbreaking technology has been used to help create realistic digital human and humanlike characters in "Avatar," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Maleficent," "Oblivion," "Blade Runner 2049" and many other blockbuster and award-winning films.

After being congratulated by Oyelowo, Debevec took the podium to deliver an acceptance speech on behalf of his team, thanking the Sci-Tech Committee and numerous people from the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, among others. It was at USC's ICT that Debevec's team developed the light stage system and high-resolution facial scanning process, using a custom sphere of computer-controllable LED and specialized polarized gradient lighting patterns. That allowed cameras to digitize every detail of every expression of an actor's face at a resolution to a tenth of a millimeter.

During his 45-second speech, Debevec also managed to give a shout-out to his mom — Linda Miller of Champaign — his biggest fan and plus one at the event.

Debevec has been fascinated by the silver screen's movie magic since seeing "Star Wars." Before he hit double digits, his social worker mom and dad Paul T. Debevec — a professor emeritus of the University of Illinois' physics department — said he was using his Super 8 mm camera to make short stop-action movies starring his "Star Wars" action figures and Miller, and writing computer programs on his Commodore VIC-20 and 64 to animate words and photos.

While he wrote two short films, directed and produced three and even has an acting credit to his name — a Campanile onlooker in his 1997 "The Campanile Movie" — he never dreamed winning an Academy Award was in his grasp until learning that some of "the computer-graphic greats" he studied as a graduate student at the University of California-Berkeley — including Jim Kajiya, Ken Perlin and Alvy Ray Smith — all won Sci-Tech awards.

While honored and thrilled to join their ranks a second time, the computer graphics researcher said the biggest thrill is coming up with an idea and creating "a visual image that no one has ever seen before."

"Developing a technology to digitize a human face down to the level of skin pores and fine wrinkles to create a photorealdigital actor has been incredibly gratifying," he said. "When I was studying computer graphics in graduate school, no one even knew if this would even be possible."

Debevec's plaque is on display in the lobby of USC's ICT next to the arm of Light Stage 2, a 10-foot semicircle of strobe lamps used to scan actors Tobey Maguire and Alfred Molina for "Spider-Man 2."

But, "I'll probably keep the new award in my office at Google's Playa Vista Campus (once Howard Hughes' hangar for the Spruce Goose), where we've just constructed our latest light stage system," he said.

While Light Stage X remains in heavy demand, Debevec said the public may have a chance to see Light Stage 5, which first enabled the polarized gradient illumination facial scanning process and scanned the actors for "Avatar," among other visual effects award-winning movies. It's joining the collection of the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, due to open later this year in Los Angeles.

"Let's hope they actually put it on display," he said.

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