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How to create a Digital movie star
A different kind of "Making of" (by - Jean Lafleur)


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Creating a movie star with nothing but imagination, skill, and talent. Pretty ambitious! But I think doable and the next great adventure in movie making.I just finished working on a short prototype in "realistic digitally created movies" called KYRA and I have learned a few things along the way. First, let me say unequivocally that I am not pretending that Kyra is a "movie star". But I was certainly experimenting to find out how we could arrive at creating one.Also, let me state that I am passionately advocating for the industry to make more realistic movies that are totally digital.
The birth of a new medium is always an exciting time for creative people. It is the time where you get to do things for the first time, to discover new possibilities, to create what others will have to be content to copy in the future. Sakaguchi and Zemeckis were very privileged to experience this unique rush. But I believe that there are still things to discover and areas to explore. I'm ready!
Coming from "conventional cinema", not animation, afforded me the opportunity to have a fresh look at the medium. This is not going to be like any article or "making of" that you've ever read. The authors usually extol the virtues of their fantastic new equipment and unique techniques. But what I need to tell you is that, in making Kyra, I did almost everything wrong.


Mind you, I am still pretty proud of what my team and I did with our limited resources. I think we got closer to an expressive character as anyone has until now.I freely admit that there is still work to do to create a virtual character that will have the appeal of a real "movie star", but I believe it can be done. If it is true that we learn more from mistakes then from successes, I might as well share the result of my experience with you, and tell you what I now believe is the way to get there.
The most important advantage in creating our own virtual characters is that they can be fashioned exactly the way the script needs them. We don't have to make a compromise between the way they look and their acting abilities. Now, this is a closely guarded secret, but in movies, casting is most of the time a compromise. Often, to make up my ideal character, I would have liked to take bits and pieces of different actors - the face of one, the body of an other, and the talent of yet an other. In digital movies, it can be done. Our virtual characters can be the prolongation of the creative thought process that went on during the writing of the script and the medium allows us to preserve and enhance the vision underlying that script.
It is baffling to me that most producers have not yet caught on to the fantastic advantages of producing realistic digitally created movies and creating our own original characters. Even if we put aside the opportunity for total creative freedom, there are a lot of important practical benefits that digital movies bring, especially in a franchise situation:

- You own and totally control your characters
- Your stars will never negotiate for more money
- If they are children, they will never grow up and look ridiculous in situations written for kids
- If they are adults, they will not grow old, fat, get arrested, or die
- They can look the way you want them to look and still have the ability to act
- They can do any stunts you want, you can show their faces in these stunts, and "shoot" them from any angle
- You will never hear again the phrases: "This is not what my character would do." or "I don't do nudity."
- You can resurrect old movie stars - I wrote a script called "Orson and Rita". (Welles and Hayworth, that is)
- Even the most elaborate and spectacular sets and convoluted action shots are not necessarily more expensive to do
- You don't have to deal with the hybrid real/digital - which, in my opinion is the worst of both worlds - setting up two productions, then try to marry the shots the best you can
- Eventually, as the technique gets better, the computers get faster, and we learn more about the process, the budgets will come down
- Naturally, it is in science fiction and fantasy films with their stylized visuals that the more immediate benefits will be felt.

The only director, along with his producers, that seem committed to this is Robert Zemeckis. It shows a lot of conviction and courage. His "Beowulf" was criticized by some, but the medium is still in its infancy, and I believe that it was a giant step in the right direction. We need to keep going. There is a future in this. The production companies that will acquire the expertise and position themselves as leaders in this field will be ahead of the curve and have a lock on a totally new industry... Mark my words! Ever hear of a guy called Walt Disney? Of course, every digital effect that is currently created for science fiction and fantasy films contributes to the expertise that will be needed to attain this goal.That said, I concede that we are not quite there yet, especially with the realistic appearance and convincing performance of our characters. We need to create authentic virtual movie stars. And this is precisely the subject I want to address.
First I believe that we must relinquish all our preconceptions - those coming from the world of animation and those coming from conventional movies. It's a brand new medium and we need to make a clean break; we don't have to copy existing movie stars. In spite of what most people will tell you, the benefits of making a movie star from "scratch" far outweigh the downside. Yes, we start with a blind slate, without a "star's previous popularity". But it's possible; they do it in cartoons. Think of Shrek. He's become a movie star with many features to his credits and even a few commercials.

Now for the fun part: the nuts and bolts of how to make a movie star out of nothing?




Designing a movie star
How do we decide what our character is going to look like and how is he/she going to move? We have three primary sources to help us: the script, real life, and our vision.

The script
We can tailor the appearance of our character to the needs of the story. The story is everything. Dig into the script and discover what the character is really about. Fashion it so that he fulfills his destiny in the most original and revealing way. Look at this as casting in an ideal world.

Real life
Real life is a limitless source of inspiration. The billions of variations that human faces exhibit with the basic elements of two eyes, a nose, and a mouth are astounding. Look at all the faces around you as a supermarket of features. There are great examples everywhere: On the street, on TV, on DVDs, on the Internet, etc. You can take a whole look or bits and pieces. Once you start really looking at people, you will find that it is addictive. I know that I'm hooked. It is fascinating, and leads to creating characters that are varied, original, and compelling.

The vision
This is where we can make our own individual view of people and their world concrete. We have to work at defining what aspects of each character we want to highlight, and what will enhance the ultimate meaning of the film. For our heroes, we need to find out what it is that the spectator can empathize with and run with it... be it vulnerability, strength, fundamental honesty, crass selfishness, or more ambiguous and complex aspects. Obviously, creating a movie star is not only a technical venture. It uses all of our talent and insight. We should try not to fall into the traps of the usual clichés. On the contrary, going realistic instead of cartoon gives us the opportunity to go for more interesting and complex characters and storylines.
We all have preferences and dislikes about other human beings. We all have different ideas about what is "sex appeal". This cannot be helped, but the really talented directors have learned to broaden their vision of the world and people, and can create more than a few types of characters. Their works are more complex and all the richer for it. All this applies in digital movies.
Not only are our main characters important, but also each supporting character has a contribution to make to the story and to the mood of the film. We should go for it. It is important for each character to be distinctive. From the basic story telling point of view, there is nothing worst than when the spectator cannot tell the characters apart. And this happens more often then we would like to believe.


Sculpting a movie star
In making Kyra, we used a pre-existing geometry. We ended up with not enough geometry to do a convincing job. I now believe that if you want to go truly realistic, each character should have a geometry designed for its individual characteristics.
The way this should be done, in my opinion, is the way most of the big productions do it. We gather documentation, approximate examples of what our character should look like. We make drawings combining these features. When we have something we like, we make sculptures. When we have something that works, we mark the vertices and scan the thing. This might not be the fastest way but it is the best way until all our modellers have become Michelangelos.
Every character presents different problems with different degrees of flexibility, wrinkling, sagging, and jiggle. To create a totally realistic character, not only do we need enough polygons to sculpt the face in neutral, but enough to model every expression, every contortion, every contraction, and every wrinkle that the face will exhibit. We must have enough geometry to sculpt a full complement of blendshapes (morph targets,etc.). In making Kyra, we used bumpmaps to create the smaller wrinkles. In our circumstances, it was the only avenue opened to us. It kind of worked, but to be honest, it is much better to make them out of geometry, it affords the animator to see all the facial features in real time and the lighting and shading on the character are more convincing.

The eyes of a movie star
I am sure it will surprise no one to hear that the eyes are the most important element in the face. I don't know about seeing the soul, but they certainly give life to the face.



The eyeball itself is an interesting and complex object. To be totally realistic, we have to deal with phenomenons of optic, transparency, reflections, refractions, and shadows. The way the eyes move and the perpetually changing degree that they converge - strabismus - is a crucial element of expression. This is how we see where our character is looking, what he is thinking, how reflective he is, and how awake he is. Simply put, a character whose eyes move synchronously is dead in the water. Controlling the movements of the eyes is the single most important factor of human expressions.

The hands
Hands are a much-neglected element. We must avoid the rubber glove syndrome. In making Kyra, we had to resort to tweaking the shape of the hands to the various positions. For a whole production, this is definitely not practical. To make good and expressive hands, we must combine a good paint weight with a full complement of blendshapes. I believe that to have hands that look natural in any position and for them to work in movement, we must have a blendshape for each phalange and some for the movement of the palm. To do a really good job, we'll probably end up with 50 blendshapes or more. Each blendshape can be connected to the skeleton, of course. Creating appropriate and expressive hands is another important factor in defining the character's personality.



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