Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 136 / DECEMBER 1991 / PAGE 100

Synthetic stars. (computer-generated special effects) (Column)
by Steven Anzovin

Bogey leans forward and in that unmistakable voice says, "Here's looking at you, kid." He clinks glasses with Marilyn, who winks and laughs breathily when suddenly, through a floor grate, up oozes a metallic polyliquid that turns into--yes--Ronald Reagan. But he's only half human; his legs are still silvery puddles. "Where's the rest of me?" Ronnie demands. That's up to you, for the age of synthetic stars is upon us.

If you've seen Terminator 2, you know it's possible, using a computer, to mutate the human form in ways unimaginable just a few years ago. But what's pulling people to this film is more than Arnold Schwarzenegger's masterful impersonation of a robot; it's the incredible computer-generated special effects. As the new terminator, T1000, Robert Patrick plays his best scenes as a polymorphous blob. Talk about star quality!

The idea of shape-changing beings is as old as humanity. One of the best known, Proteus of Greek mythology, changed his form at will, but if you could hold him fast, he would answer any question you asked.

Recently, a number of sci-fi films, such as The Thing, have toyed with the same notion, but never has the concept been realized with such vividness as in Terminator 2, thanks to some very advanced computer graphics techniques and the cunning skill of Mark Dippe and the programmers at Industrial Light and Magic.

Much of what ILM did for Terminator 2 is proprietary stuff involving the custom compositing of high-resolution frame-by-frame laser scans of 35mm film with 3-D reflectancemapped computer models.

While some of this is only useful for characters who need to melt into mercury puddles, the same techniques can be used to re-create real people. That's the goal of Nadia and Daniel Thalmann, Swiss computer-graphics wizards and the masterminds behind the 1987 short film Rendez-vous a Montreal.

The plot is simple and brief: Computer-generated actors Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe, bored with the afterlife, return to earth to rendezvous at a cafe in Montreal. When Bogey appears, he finds a stone Marilyn waiting. A kiss brings her to life, and their romance begins.

It may not be stunning drama or even graphically convincing (the film now looks positively Stone Age), but there's an undeniable frisson in seeing Bogey and Marilyn together as they never were in reality.

As the Thalmanns claim in their recent book, Synthetic Actors (Springer-Verlag, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, New York 10010; 212-460-1500; $49.50), there are basically no barriers to creating convincing computer-generated versions of Hollywood stars.

>From an artistic point of view, the authors say, such films allow "the creation of new stories with existing people such as cinema stars or historical or political personalities. Fictitious persons may live alongside existing or dead ones."

How about Abe Lincoln versus Godzilla or Madonna in a video with Mother Teresa? What the authors don't say--because it's the obvious goal of synthetic-actor research--is that when the techniques are perfected (they nearly are), it will be close to impossible to distinguish real film and video personalities from synthetic ones. The old truism about politicians' being creations of the media could be the literal truth.

Thanks to the PC, you don't have to accept synthetic characters foisted upon you by media wizards. Yes, you too can build your own Marily, Terminator, or as-yet-undreamed-of blockbluster synthetic star.

Software isn't quite at the ILM-level of sophistication yet, but a program called Mannequin from HUMANCAD (1800 Walt Whitman Road, Melville, New York 11747; 516-752-3568; $699) can get a 3-D body into your computer.

Using an extensive library of ergonomic data, Mannequin lets you create the likeness of men, women, and children of different body types and nationalities. The models are fully articulated, and can bend at any joint with the same range of movement as a human's, and they can be animated.

Not much can be done to personalize their faces from within Mannequin, but you can export models to any 3-D modeling program that accepts AutoCAD's 3-D file format, tweak the features there, and add clothes, hair, and 50-mm Gatling guns.

In fact, you can metamorphose a model any way you want. Animate your synthetic star in front of a digitized background, and you can start underbidding ILM on Hollywood's next sci-fi epic.