Whether you’re wowed or creeped out by the controversial digital humans in “Rogue One,” featuring the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia from “A New Hope,” there’s no denying that ILM has achieved a new level of photoreal facial animation.
In fact, the same facial performance-capture solving system (developed at ILM by Kiran Bhat, Michael Koperwas, Brian Cantwell, and Paige Warner) will be among the Academy’s 18 Sci-Tech honorees this year.
But the high-fidelity work on “Warcraft” — even though it was Orcs — convinced ILM’s chief creative officer and senior VFX supervisor John Knoll (and creator of “Rogue One”) to pull the trigger. “We were within striking distance to achieve close-up digital human work,” he told IndieWire.
For Tarkin and Leia, they mocapped actors Guy Henry (“Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows”) and Ingvild Deila, respectively.
Added Hal Hickel, ILM’s animation supervisor: “On ‘Warcraft,’ it was about the overall fidelity of capturing the tiny things that go on in the face that are all inter-related. And then being able to transport that fidelity around the eyes and the eyebrows. On this show, we were going from a human to a human — and a really well-known human — and trying to preserve all of the great detail in Guy Henry’s face and performance and bring that out in our digital Tarkin.”
Which is why ILM studied Cushing’s four minutes of screen time in “A New Hope,” paying close attention to every vocal and physical nuance of his performance, particularly his signature perma-scowl.
“Obviously, Guy doesn’t move his face the way that Peter Cushing would have,” Hickel said. “And so there’s an interpretive process that goes on after you get the capture of all that great detail to make sure it’s realistic and correct.”
Knoll called it the perfect makeup job. “We can do a makeup that can turn an actor into any shape, change the proportions and make it look just like him. But if he doesn’t move his face in the same way, he literally pushes the character off model and stops looking like him. Guy Henry was driving the performance, but when he enunciates particular words, he doesn’t necessarily move his lips in exactly the same way that Peter Cushing would.”
And that’s when animation craft comes in to fill in the gaps. Fortunately, Knoll discovered a life cast of Cushing’s face used for “Top Secret!” (1984). After building models of Henry and Tarkin, the first step was solving the facial mo-cap onto the Henry model and running a validation test to perfect it. Then ILM transferred all of the animation curves onto the Tarkin model.
Matching skin was difficult, because Henry’s skin is younger and smoother. For instance, when Cushing does an eyebrow raise, he has thinner skin and finer wrinkles. But scans done at OTOY’s Light Stage in Burbank helped ILM match the skin reflectance.
However, lighting was tough. Tarkin was shot mostly in shadow in “A New Hope” to make him look more ominous. “I consulted early on with Greig Fraser, our cinematographer, and I was arguing that part of what [defined] Peter Cushing was how he was lit and the particular angles that highlight the hollow of his cheek,” Knoll said.
“And Greig felt pretty strongly that it looked wrong and he couldn’t do that exactly. So he’s lighting Tarkin the way he lights any other actor in the movie, and that did prove to be a challenge because one of the shots we were first working on was an exact match to the onset lighting from ‘A New Hope’ and it wasn’t working. And just as an exercise we did an experiment where we tried to match one of the ‘New Hope’ shots exactly, using a hard instrument coming from a 3/4 front to see if we could cast a shadow along the edge to pull out that feature. And the exact same animation suddenly switched to looking just like Tarkin.”
Added Hickel: “That was a great validation because it told us that our model and skin textures were correct and what we were really fighting against were the differences in lighting.”
By contrast, the digital reconstruction of Leia (prior to the passing of Fisher last month) involved replicating a brief moment from “A New Hope,” but without any dialogue required of the mo-capped Deila.
“That was hand-sculpted from looking at a bunch of archival footage and reference photographs,” Knoll said. “We found good side views, front views, and 3/4, and matchmoved it. And there was a particular angle we picked from the white corridor scene where Vader’s confronting Leia and used that as a test to validate the model.” Once again, scanning was done at OTOY’s Light Stage.
“As we were developing the model, we would render our asset in the matched camera to that shot, trying to match the lighting as closely as possible,” Knoll added. “So I was confident that the shape of the model, the color of her skin, all those sorts of things, were very very close because we could reproduce shots from ‘New Hope’ very, very exactly.”