NewsWire: Technology Behind Digital Actors – New York Post

by Aug 17, 2000Lord of the Rings (Movies)

Jeff Kleiser’s firm also created a digitized incarnation of the shape-shifting character Mystique for X-Men. (20th Century Fox)
After the announcement that New Line’s live-action film Simone would star a CGI “actress” (see previous article), The New York Post interviewed SFX pioneer Jeff Kleiser about digital-actor technology. A digital-actor is also “playing” Gollum in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings film.


Thursday,August 17,2000


IT was only a matter of time. News this week that Gattaca writer-director Andrew Niccol plans to cast a computer-generated leading lady in his upcoming film, Simone, is just the next logical step in the digitization of Hollywood.

Digital actors – or “synthespians” – have cropped up as fantasy characters, such as Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace and the titular mouse from Stuart Little.

But the digital human to star opposite Al Pacino in Simone is a first.

“Over the last five or six years, the tools have all become so efficient and the cost of computing has come down to where computer-generating an actress is within the realm of possibility,” says Jeff Kleiser, who co-founded the special-effects firm Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., a pioneer in the digital-actor field.

“It is possible to create an actress and the audience wouldn’t be able to tell it wasn’t a real person.”

Kleiser, whose firm created a digitized incarnation of the shape-shifting character Mystique in the summer smash X-Men, plans to put in a bid for Niccol’s film.

Kleiser-Walczak is testing a synthetic actor, a “human-like robot,” for an upcoming film project and hopes to attract Niccol’s attention with the creation.

But Kleiser says he’s not interested in creating a synthespian to do exactly the same job that a flesh-and-blood actress could do.

“It’s a preposterously expensive proposition to create a photographically realistic computer-generated character, so there has to be some justification for doing it, aside from the ‘cool’ factor,” he says. “There has to be a reason in the story line why the role couldn’t or shouldn’t be played by an actor.

“We would have to be familiar with [Niccol’s] motivation. If he’s just trying to make a performance a human could produce, it doesn’t seem like a worthwhile endeavor.”

Inventing a CGI – computer-generated image – to play a lead role in a feature film would take a minimum of six months, says Kleiser, “depending on how close the camera is going to be getting to her and what the character has to do.”

A new technique called haptic interface has simplified the process.

Previously, a life-size figure would be sculpted in clay before being digitized, point by point, in a computer. The new technique allows the user literally to “sculpt” a 3D object in the computer. Skin texture, hair and clothing are added before the “actor” is animated.

How weird will it be for Oscar-winner Pacino to act opposite this virtual woman?

“In the tests we’ve been doing, we use a person in a blue-screen suit, so the actor has a real person to interact with,” Kleiser says. “Then we replace the blue suit with a synthetic person in a frame-accurate way.”

Are synthespians a cause of concern for the Screen Actors Guild, which is threatening a crippling strike next June, when its current contract with the studios runs out?

“I think they’ll find most CGI characters are far more expensive than any actress,” says SAG spokesman Greg Krizman. “It’s a novelty, and nothing else. It’s probably good for publicity and marketing, but I’m not too concerned about it [taking jobs].

“They can’t create an acting performance any more than they could computer-generate what a director does or a writer does.”


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