CHAMPAIGN — When Paul Debevec was young, his grandfather gave him a Super 8 camera for Christmas.
"He liked to make these little stop-action movies," mom Linda Miller said, recalling one was of a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich being made and a glass of milk being poured. "The sandwich gets eaten, and the milk goes down. But you never see any hands."
She starred in another movie that required her to sit in an old office chair in their backyard.
"He acted like he was starting it like a lawn mower," said Miller, who grew a bit annoyed when he kept directing her to stand up, move the chair a short distance and sit back down across the entire yard while he filmed her.
But she was impressed with the results: "It looked like I was self-propelled."
Perhaps that fascination and experimentation with cameras, computers, photography and moviemaking — all of which started around age 7 or 8 — is why the Champaign woman isn't that surprised her son would go on to innovate in the field of computer-generated graphics and help advance special effects in the filmmaking industry.
The 1988 University Laboratory High School alumnus led a team at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies that developed groundbreaking light-stage technology used to help create realistic digital humans and human-like characters in "Avatar," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Blade Runner 2049" and many more award-winning Hollywood blockbusters.
Now a senior scientist in Google's virtual-reality department, his work will be honored by The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences on Saturday. It will be his second Academy Award.
In 2010, Debevec — along with Timothy Hawkins, John Monos and Mark Sager — picked up a Scientific and Engineering Award, called the Academy Plaque, for designing and engineering earlier versions of the light-stage capture devices and "the image-based facial-rendering system developed for character relighting in motion pictures."
"I was over the moon," recalled Miller, a licensed clinical social worker who used to work at the University of Illinois' McKinley Health Center but is now in private practice.
She added she was thrilled but not surprised to learn he will be honored a second time at this year's Scientific and Technical Awards ceremony at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills.
Academy Certificates recognizing technical achievement will be given to Debevec, Timothy Hawkins and Wan-Chun Ma "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."
"I don't know that it came as a surprise because I know how hard he works," said Miller, who is flying to Los Angeles this morning to join her son and his colleagues at the black-tie event. "He does very good work, and he's a perfectionist. It's hard for someone who's an academic, not in the film industry, to garner an award like this. So I'm so happy his work is being rewarded and recognized."
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Born in Princeton, N.J., Debevec was 5 years old when his family moved to Champaign in 1977. His dad, Paul T. Debevec, now a UI professor emeritus of nuclear and particle physics, also recalls that his son showed an interest in computers at a young age.
At South Side Elementary School, he learned how to write programs in BASIC on TRS-80 and Apple II computers in a computer van that traveled around to different schools. By age 9 or 10, he used his earnings from his News-Gazette paper route to buy his own Commodore VIC-20 computer.
"Even as a junior high school student, I remember him writing a graphics program so someone's name could spin around in 3D," his dad said incredulously, quickly adding that that ability with computers didn't come from him.
The younger Debevec said it wasn't until he went to the University of Michigan to study math and computer engineering that he realized he could turn his interest in computer graphics into a career. In the summer of 1991, he devised a method of transforming a digitized picture of his 11-year-old Chevette, a hand-me-down from Mom, to create an animation of it flying across the screen.
At the University of California-Berkeley, he worked with his doctoral adviser to create an image-based modeling system for creating virtual cinematography of architectural scenes using new techniques for photogrammetry and image-based rendering, and later directed a photorealistic fly-around of the campus bell tower for his 1997 film, "The Campanile Movie." Those techniques were later used to create the Oscar-winning virtual backgrounds in the "bullet time" shots in the 1999 blockbuster "The Matrix."
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Debevec said the development of the light-stage system to create realistic digital humans and characters originated from his post-doctoral research at Berkeley and carried over to his work at USC's Institute of Creative Technologies, where he led graphics research for 16 years and is now an adjunct research professor of computer science.
A prototype was made out of wood, plastic tubing and a 250-watt spotlight, which "was pulled with ropes to move the light. It was very low tech (but) it could light a face from every direction that the light could come from."
Prior to 2004, Debevec said, the only way to get a really high-resolution model of an actor's face — which special-effects people could use to change a character into a creature, age the character and make it look realistic — was to make a plaster cast, photograph it and put the photos in a high-resolution laser-scanning system, which was expensive and time-consuming.
The early technology was used in a few films, including "Spider-Man 2," released in 2004, "Superman Returns" (2006) and "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (2008), where it was used to age Brad Pitt's character. Both "Spider-Man 2" and "Benjamin Button" won Oscars for best visual effects.
Then, around 2005, Debevec said they started working on an advanced system, using polarizing filters on the lights and cameras to "polarize out the specular reflection from every lighting direction simultaneously."
"The new technology gave us a quick photographic process to get that tenth-of-a-millimeter detail of the skin in a way we could run through a series of natural facial expressions to record every way that the actor can look and everything they can do with their face," he said.
Debevec said the technology has been used in 40 films, including "Avatar" and "Blade Runner 2049," which won the visual-effects Oscar for 2009 and 2017, respectively.
He said that, for him, one of the most meaningful times it has been used was in "Furious 7," from the "Fast and the Furious" franchise. He said about half of the movie had been shot when Paul Walker, one of the stars, was killed in a car accident.
Production shut down, and "it looked like it might be the end of the franchise," he said.
But the director — with the help of Walker's family — decided to finish the film.
Debevec's team scanned the late actor's brothers Caleb and Cody, and Weta Digital, Peter Jackson's visual-effects company, used the data to create a "very credible" digital likeness that was used in the rest of Walker's scenes.
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Though he's still involved in USC's ICT, Debevec has been working with light-field technology to improve the quality of Google's VR headset, among other things, as a senior scientist with the company.
"With light fields, we'll build some custom camera rigs that use additional cameras and move them around in a spherical space, and we record all the rays of light coming into the spherical space," he said, adding it will be more realistic and comfortable to the user.
He's also working on a new light stage for Google.
"Stay tuned to see what we're doing with that," he said.
Meantime, he's looking forward to taking his mom to Saturday's ceremony. Miller was also his "plus one" in 2010, the "big Oscars" ceremony a couple of years later and other events where her son has been honored. In 2001, he received SIGGRAPH's first Significant New Researcher Award, and in 2017, he won the Progress Medal, the most prestigious award handed out by the Society of Motion Picture and Television Engineers.
Debevec expects Saturday's ceremony to be fun. It's held a couple of weeks before the 91st Oscars at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and has been hosted by A-listers such as Jessica Alba, Margot Robbie and Patrick Stewart in the past.
A couple of years after winning his first Oscar, Debevec was asked to sit on the Academy's Science and Technology Council.
"As part of that, I've gotten to go every year for the last six years," he said, adding he "termed off" last year. "I pretty much had to win an award if I wanted to go."