Digital humans join fire and water as challenges

Dr. Aki Ross notwithstanding, creating a totally believable digital human character remains just out of reach of the talented hands of Hollywood’s f/x wizards.

“The technology is 98% there,” says Scott Ross, founder, CEO and president of f/x studio Digital Domain. “At this point, it has a lot to do with artistry, which translates into time and money.”

Ross, the photorealistic star of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” (not the Digital Domain chief), isn’t the only thing getting cinematic effects wizards out of bed in the morning.

“A lot of the work we did for (‘Star Wars: Episode I -Phantom Menace’), we’re taking a step further in the next film,” says Cliff Plumer, director of digital production technologies at Industrial Light & Magic, of George Lucas’ summer 2002 tentpole, “Star Wars: Episode II.”

“Since it’s all being shot digitally, we created an entire pipeline in which we can work with the digital files.”

Lower on the difficulty scale are more traditional applications such as elements tied to blowing stuff up – smoke, fire, debris. ILM did a lot of that in “Pearl Harbor’s” battleship-row attack sequence.

“If they aren’t able to capture the right feel or movement of the smoke, we do what we can to enhance it, or totally re-create it,” Plumer says.

Along the same lines, computer characters are doing what flesh-and-blood thesps can’t, like the passengers dropping off the deck of the sinking ship in “Titanic.” Tough enough, but had that been Leonardo DiCaprio taking the fall, it would have been a lot more work.

“The more recognizable to the human eye the character is the more difficult it is to create,” says Digital Domain’s Ross. “The most difficult is probably your mother, somebody you know and love and have spent a lot of time with. You know the intricacies and innuendo of her personality and her movement. That makes it the most difficult.”

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