When you see realistic digital human or alien characters like the blue Na'vi in "Avatar," Superman in "Superman Returns" and a reverse-aging Brad Pitt in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," you have University High School alumnus Paul Debevec to thank, in large part.
Debevec developed the groundbreaking light-stage technology that helps make digital actors trick viewers into believing they're seeing the real thing. For his contributions, the 1988 Uni grad recently received the Scientific and Engineering Academy Award.
Debevec doesn't consider himself a "Hollywood Master of Light," as the MIT Technology Journal called him a few years ago.
"Light is fundamental to filmmaking, and there are many amazing cinematographers in Hollywood who truly have mastered how to light people and scenes in order to best support the mood and story of each shot of a film," he told The News-Gazette.
"There are also legions of digital lighting artists working at visual effects companies, applying their artistry to virtually light the computer-generated elements of each visual effects shot."
What Debevec is noted for is having developed techniques that help bridge the work of those two groups.
A major player
The 38-year-old Debevec seems to be a major player – though he wouldn't call himself that – in the special-effects industry.
A week after receiving his Academy Award, he attended another awards ceremony in Los Angeles: the Visual Effects Society Awards.
As a society member and not an award recipient, Debevec sat at a "real nice table" close to the stage. From that vantage point he enjoyed seeing director James Cameron pick up a Lifetime Achievement Award for special effects; six other awards went to Cameron's "Avatar," the biggest grossing movie of all time.
Tonight, as Debevec and friends watch the televised Academy Awards presentation for Achievement in Visual Effects, they will keep their fingers crossed for "Avatar."
The LightStage at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, where Debevec is associate director for graphics research, illuminated the human actors in "Avatar" to create their digital counterparts. If "Avatar" wins for special effects, though, the Oscar would go to Weta Digital, director Peter Jackson's visual-effects studio.
"The folks there are absolutely brilliant users and innovators of technology, interfacing it to all the amazing artistry that went on in 'Avatar,'" Debevec said. "But it's a very cool thing to be part of the 'Avatar' film and part of that world."
The LightStage system is based on original research Debevec led while he was a post-doc researcher at the University of California-Berkeley.
Basically, the LightStage captures how an actor's face appears when lit from every possible direction.
"From this captured imagery, specialized algorithms create realistic virtual renditions of the actor in the illumination of any location or set, faithfully reproducing the color, texture, shine, shading and translucency of the actor's skin," says a news release from USC.
The early LightStage
Debevec built the prototype at Berkeley in 1999, using his own money to buy rudimentary equipment like 4x4 boards and ABS plastic tubing. "We sawed them up and stuck them together," he recalled. "We put together a system that held a little spotlight about 5 feet away on a gantry. By pulling on ropes, it could spiral around a head and in 1 minute could light the face in every single direction that light could come from."
At that time, "Computer graphics were good at shiny spheres, geometric shapes and the occasional reptilian dinosaur or alien," he said. "But we simply hadn't seen realistic human beings done with computer graphics. That became a holy grail of our field. Nobody knew how to do it."
Debevec's idea was to capture data of real people from different angles in different light conditions and different facial poses. The data would be sent to a computer and "interpolated and extrapolated" to create realistic digital characters on the silver screen.
The first movie to use the LightStage technology was "Spider-Man 2." By then, in late 2002, Debevec was at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, where he and others had built a new, improved light stage with strobe lights and motors – "not stuff we scrounged at Home Depot."
After a successful scan test of a nonactor, LightStage scanned "Spider-Man 2" stars Alfred Molina and Tobey Maguire. Debevec remembered that Molina, who portrayed Doc Ock, was lit from 480 directions. That resulted in a "pretty dense data" set to eventually create the digital Doc Ock.
"Doc Ock was a big challenge because he climbs buildings and fights Spider-Man on trains," Debevec said. "It was not practical to shoot with a real actor because of the crazy angles and how fast the train was moving."
The LightStage process was integral to 37 "Spider-Man 2" shots, among them Doc Ock's death in the Hudson River. That was one of the earliest examples of a full-frame digital human in a motion picture, Debevec said.
Based on the success of "Spider-Man 2," Debevec and his LightStage team worked on a string of other films, creating digital actors for the leads in "King Kong," "Superman Returns" and "Hancock."
Released in 2006, "Superman Returns" was a high point for the classical light-stage process being directly applied to and seen on film, Debevec said.
"There were many shots of Superman up close that was the digital guy, not the real actor Brandon Routh. John Monos made that happen," Debevec said.
Monos, of Sony Pictures Imageworks, Tim Hawkins of LightStage LLC and Mark Sagar, now of Weta Digital, shared the Academy Award that Debevec received two weeks ago. The four men co-developed the LightStage system at USC.
Debevec said their Academy Award is not an Oscar per se; the four instead received a golden "Academy Plaque" with a small Oscar statuette on its side. The Oscar itself goes to the visual effects supervisors in winning movies.
"One thing the Academy wants for the science and technology awards is to see a process used in a few films, not just as a flash in a pan," Debevec said.
In that regard, the LightStage system was "truly credited with having crossed the threshold for digital actors" in "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," released in 2008.
In it, Pitt plays the title character, born as an old man who reverse-ages to an infant. For Button's early middle years, the filmmakers used "artistically driven techniques" to make Pitt appear younger, according to Debevec.
"To make him look older, we had to completely change the shape of his face," he recalled. "The visual effects company, Digital Domain, had to get all his skin to sag and droop and make an old-man version of him. To do that they worked with us and also Rick Baker's makeup studio."
Baker's studio built a maquette of a head of how Pitt might look at 70. The filmmakers took it to the LightStage lab, where Debevec and team pulled it out of a black box and "very gingerly" put it into the LightStage.
They shot it one light at a time, using a full geodesic sphere of LED lights. The resulting digital actor appeared in the first 52 minutes of "Benjamin Button."
"That film was very cool. It won the Academy Award for best visual effects a year ago," Debevec said. "When I saw that happen I saw that our technology had scored a significant assist in achieving that result. Finally we had a nice set of films that our technology was applied on."
The early years
Debevec, who has been in California for 20 years, moved to Champaign when he was 6, as the influential "Star Wars" movie came out.
His father, Paul T. Debevec, who now lives in Urbana, had taken a position at the University of Illinois as a nuclear physicist. Debevec's mother, Linda Miller, lives in Champaign and is a clinical social worker with a private practice in psychotherapy.
Paul was their only child.
"He's been very creative since he was very little," Miller said. "It's just been a progression."
Debevec will return to C-U next month to speak at Uni High and at the TEDx conference at the UI.
"Uni was formative in a number of ways, one of which was I was the photo editor for The Gargoyle (student newspaper) and also the yearbook," he said. "I spent a lot of time loading Tri-X film into cameras, shooting it, organizing teams of photographers to cover events, dipping photographic paper into developer and fix baths."
That work gave him a much better understanding of what special effects originally were. "I was able to understand the history of the craft and appreciate how easy things are today," he said.
At Uni, Debevec also loved math and art and explored the early world of computers. Before that, as a kid, he would play video games on the UI's PLATO system whenever his dad took him to the lab.
Early work in 3-D
Debevec went on to the University of Michigan to major in computer graphics and computer vision – writing programs that analyze images to try to figure out their 3-D shapes.
In 1991 while home from Michigan, he photographed his 1980 Chevette from different angles and wrote computer programs that established the shape and surface textures of his car. He projected the photographs onto the shape of the automobile and achieved "surprisingly realistic" 3-D renderings of his Chevette flying across the computer screen.
As a Cal grad student back home for a visit, he created a 3-D model of Uni High, using a digital camera well before digital cameras became affordable to nearly everyone.
Later at Berkeley he worked with his Ph.D adviser, Jitendra Malik, to develop a new technique for deriving architectural models, using kite-aerial photographs taken by an architecture professor. He rendered them into a 3-D "fly-around" of the Berkeley campus. He called that "The "Campanile Movie."
At a 1997 computer-graphics convention at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, thousands of special-effects professionals saw his short film, using what Debevec called virtual cinematography. Filmmakers began to use the technique, specifically in several crucial scenes in "The Matrix." Released in early 1999, "The Matrix" made computer graphics history and won the Oscar for best visual effects.
With all of his successful contributions to the film industry, Debevec wants to remain in academe.
"If you're in the industry there is some amazing research that goes on there, but it's more driven by the needs of particular productions," he said. "Being in this academic context and having this great privilege of being funded to develop the next new thing, we can zig while everybody else is zagging.
"We can develop something today that might not be ready to take off for five years. But when it does take off we've done a lot to get it to that point."