Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Making of Benjamin Button

Ed Ulbrich of Digital Domain gave us a tour behind the scenes of Benjamin Button. I had assumed there was some incredible make-up work in the movie. Not so. In fact, for the first hour of the film, Button's face is entirely computer generated.

The task set out by the director for Digital Domain was to make Brad Pitt look older through graphics, but to retain all his mannerisms, and to have a character that could handle all situations in the movie, such as interacting with different characters, and appearing in different lighting. Ulbrich, the Executive VP of Digital Domain, had pitched for the business. He confessed that he was so overwhelmed after winning the business that he returned to the office and vomited.

The film required a 'stew' of technology drawn from the film industry to the medical imaging industry. The breakthrough came from using The Facial Action Coding System, which breaks down all facial expressions into 70 basic facial actions. By combining these 70 coded actions, you can create all possible facial expressions. So, Pitt started by doing all these 70 facial actions, which were then applied to a computer graphic image of his head at 60, 70, and 80 years of age. These heads were then 'attached' to bodies representing those ages. Incredibly detailed work was required to ensure that all of this looked realistic: one person worked on the eyes for two years, while the software for the tongue took nine months.

The last step was for Pitt to 'act' the part in the movie. This was done in isolation of the rest of the action, more or less like we've seen musicians perform in a studio. Digital Domain then captured that, and reapplied it to the graphic head, using the FACS system. I'm sure I haven't done this talk justice, as I was mesmerized by the visuals on the stage. It was a really amazing story.

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