Synthespians target H’w’d

The quest for realistic-looking digital characters, especially humans, has taken a step closer to reality. A Newton, Mass.-based company, Mirage Technologies, which had its beginnings in medical imaging, is launching an L.A.-based subsidiary, Mirage Studios, that will aim at helping to create completely computer-generated film and TV characters, which have been dubbed “synthespians.”

The new venture is headed by Michael Rosenblatt, former vice chairman of Atlantic Entertainment, and Ivan Gulas, an expert in the field of neuropsychology with a special interest in the correlation of human emotions and expression. Mirage Technologies is privately held, its principal investor being the publicly traded Safeguard Scientific.

Other key personnel include exec Scott McGrail, exec VP and director of business development, and Carey Capaldi, chief technical officer. Both McGrail and Capaldi are veterans of digital studio POP and Eastman Kodak’s Cinesite. Trish Ashford, digital effects supervisor and producer on “Independence Day,” is serving as a consultant to the venture.

Human touch

The involvement of effects and entertainment execs makes sense. But what about Gulas – who is on the faculty of Harvard Medical School? For one thing, his expertise is of the type needed to create computer-generated human characters that are believable.

According to visual effects industry execs, one of the main problems in creating such characters is that auds know how a human being moves, even down to fine points such as blinking.

“To create photorealistic human beings, you have to define bones and muscles; when you say ‘blink,’ the computer has to cause the whole face to respond as if a human blinked,” said Dave Larson, exec VP of new ventures and marketing at POP.

Larson praised Mirage’s work on a prototype for human figures, but added that cost would prohibit most producers from developing feature-length projects that would re-create deceased movie stars, or even a human hero who doesn’t really exist. It could be done, he said, “but at an extraordinary price. The only way to do that would be with frame-by-frame animation, and I don’t know if any film could recover the kind of money that would take.”

Expensive venture

Jim Morris, president of Industrial Light & Magic, the company that created photorealistic dinosaurs for “Jurassic Park,” agrees that what’s technologically feasible may not be desirable from a budgetary standpoint. “It’s certainly possible to build a model of a person, using computer graphics, and put a credible texture and skin on it. But it’s daunting, and it’s not inexpensive,” he said.

Rosenblatt agreed that using today’s technologies, photorealistic computer-generated humans may be out of reach. “But the key word there is ‘today.’ Our technology will allow producers to create the images they want within their budgets.”

Mirage’s system is called Lifeforms. It was developed over the course of 15 years for use in the biomedical field. “We started by creating realistic cells, then went out from there,” Rosenblatt said, explaining the company’s progress in developing its software. “Because the cells look so real, the skin tissue looks real, too.”

Rosenblatt and Gulas emphasized that much of Lifeforms’ development cycle was devoted to researching muscle movement, as opposed to writing code for software.

So far, Mirage Studios has contracted with EMC, a Philadelphia-based company that’s producing an Imax film on the upcoming Olympic Games in Nagano, Japan. Rosenblatt said other deals are pending.

Mirage execs expect to sign a deal with a joint venture partner within the coming weeks. Rosenblatt said he’s close to reaching an agreement with “an existing entertainment company,” but wouldn’t disclose details.

Premature assessment

Effects industry execs who have seen the demo are guarded in their predictions for Mirage’s success in Hollywood. “I was impressed with them and their assessment of the problem and their approach. But it’s very limited, what they’re showing right now, so it’s premature to say what their chances of success are,” said one exec who saw a laptop demo of Mirage’s animation. That demo, which Mirage also showed to Daily Variety, consists of a CG eye blinking while the skin around it wrinkles and the facial muscles move, as they would in real life. Mirage also is showing a brief clip of eyes moving and a head turning, as if watching a tennis match.

“By their own admission, their demo is crudely done,” continued the source. “But its promise is intriguing. The reflexes all looked good and the motion looked right.”

Richard Hollander, president of VIFX, an effects shop part-owned by 20th Century Fox, concurred. “I was impressed with what I saw. They’re doing some exciting things.”

DreamWorks Feature Animation’s Matt Elson applauds the work Mirage has done, but sounds a cautionary note about acceptance of a new technology such as LifeForms: “They’ll have a tough row to hoe. It takes about a decade for people to really understand new kinds of technology. But what they’re doing is very valid, and eventually there will be a marketplace for it.”

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