The Game Has Changed: A Film Junk Exposé on Performance-Capture Technology Starting with Tron: Legacy

“I’ve worked real hard to get this part and no freakin’ code is going to screw me over!”

On a promotional tour for Tron:Legacy, Jeff Bridges made an intriguing comment. He said the day might come when he could appear in movies without actually acting. “I could still make films,” he told The Daily Mail. “I can say, ‘I’ll lease you my image’”. He was too polite to add that if you lease my image, it will cost x. If you hire me to do the acting as well, it will cost more than x. This is going to be huge.

In Tron:Legacy, the film’s lead, Sam Flynn is drawn into the digital world of Tron and not only finds his father but a younger version of his father. Jeff Bridges plays both father parts. (Hint: No make-up is used in the creation of the younger Bridges). Eric Barba, visual effects supervisor describes how:

Step 1: Bridges current 60-year-old face was scanned and a 3D digital head with 52 facial “emotional” points created.

Step 2: The old face was then youthanized so-to-speak about 26 years, using as reference, Bridges in Against All Odds.

Step 3: Acting as the younger Kevin Flynn in Tron:Legacy, Bridges wore a motion capture head camera that tracked the “emotional” dots on his face.

Step 4: These facial expressions were then mapped onto the younger Bridges image. He thereby became the first 60-year-old actor to play himself using his own 34 year-old face.

How good does it look? Really good.

Bridge’s remark about leasing his image opens up three possibilities – two are already in the movies, one is opening soon. Clearly, he can be hired in the flesh, so-to-speak, and using performance-capture, play himself at any age. (Hint: Think Clint Eastwood doing the same for another Dirty Harry flick). Bridges could also lease his image (the price for that will make an interesting negotiation) and “body doubles” could do the performance-capture. Or Bridges could be hired to export his acting skills to a new “digital actor” – a “fresh face” digitally realized for the role to the director’s specs. Let’s call this new performer a digitor.

Now fast-forward a few years for some perspective.
It’s Academy Awards night. The winner of Best Actor in a Supporting Role does not bound on stage when her name is announced. Instead a video flashes onto the Kodak Theatre’s giant screen. She says thanks and announces she is coming out of the digital closet. Although her contract has an industrial strength non-disclosure agreement about her virtualness, she felt her fans needed to know the truth. She’s virtual – a digitor – custom coded for her winning role. Her biggest regret is that being non-corporeal, she can’t accept Oscar in person – or even hold him. Ever. As the video ends, she thanks her creator – her lead software engineer – for providing the code that made it all possible.

Consider the future
As directors eagerly anticipate the compliancy of a digital leading man or woman, one can’t help but think it won’t work the way it’s intended. How will human actors play against digitors? Will chemistry be only something in old movies? And what about the first mixed cast film? Will there be a level playing field as these new “synthetics” strive for acceptance or will the humans close ranks?

Here’s a glimpse of how this new silicon will blindside the suits and directors. They thought they were getting better “talent” management tools like drop down menus and force quits. Guess what? Software can do divas too. If it makes money at the box office, it will be coded.

Here are some typical conversations from the future:

A producer pitches the studio and gets some push-back:
“You want to have Tom’s love interest played by Samantha V1.2?* She’s all CGI! And I heard her new emo algorithm is still in Beta. Tom will have my ass if she doesn’t make him feel like he’s numero uno in the scene. And that’s just in front of the cameras. What about playful banter with Tom and the crew? How is that possible? Before we go any further, we need full disclosure on her specs.”

*In the future, digital actors will not have last names. They will have version numbers. But it won’t take your average agent long to figure out that a digitor can go to court and legally win a human last name. With the stigma of the version number gone, they’ll pass for human at least on the screen.

Here’s two human actors over their triple lattes:
“I’m auditioning for Obi Wan Kenobi as a pre-teen in The Roots of Jediism – Part 3. But I’m up against a digitor called Ken V3. His source code won a technical award last year. Variety said he has 5 programmers! And if he runs into trouble with George’s dialog (like that’s not going to happen), then they can adjust the code on the spot and WiFi it to him before George yells cut. How can I compete?”

It will be a different world for ingénues:
“When they get the lighting working on me, it’s so good, it’s sick. The high cheekbones, my big eyes, the cute nose. But when I play the scene with Melanie, if she doesn’t come off in the rushes, they just parallel process her Physiognomy sub-program with the new Prada Deep-tissue utility and nobody sees me anymore. I worked really hard to get here and no freakin’ piece of code is gonna screw me over.”

You may think the digital impact will be at the actor level only. You would be wrong.

Here’s a high level suit at CAA negotiating with a RISC-based digitor:
“You know I’m on your side. Some of my best friends are digitors. I’m talking first name basis. But the studio’s going to say to me, your graphics processor hasn’t been upgraded
in 6 months. And you know, if you can’t afford to upgrade every three months in this business, you won’t get your calls returned.”

“Speaking of calls, I heard you digitors can get mobile direct into your…um…personal space. That’s a little weird, isn’t it?”

Of course, the traditional audition rules will adjust to accommodate these new artists.

Here’s a famous director auditioning aspiring digitor:
“Hey Ed. Thanks for coming. You’re a digitor right? I know legally I’m not supposed to ask that but then you know I make my movies the way I want to. And the woman beside you. She’s your software director?”

“Sure. Sure. That’s OK to ask James – may I call you Jim? Your film was so instrumental in legitimizing us in the beginning, I feel like I’m coming home. And yes, she’s my software director. She’s also been coded as my mom if that’s not too spooky for you. She has strong opinions on what sort of parts I should be taking. She’s usually OK with everything except disrespecting cats. I really can’t do that or she’ll force quit and you’ll have to go to court to reboot me.”

“During the audition, Mom will be making real time adjustments so you can see my full emotional range. I still have one sub-program that’s Beta but I promise it’ll be on-line before shooting begins. Shall we start? ”

The brave new world of filmmaking.
Will these breakthroughs take us to better places or will the much-heralded solution be the new problem. I’m thinking technological convergence is the answer. That means many applications bundled into one software program – millions of lines of code running on something like a Tianhe-1A (yes, it’s Chinese). This program will enable a single performance-capture digitor to go from Angelina Jolie to Snoop Dog with just a few menu selections. True convergence will be realized when one performance-capture package provides the whole cast. If you have to ask how much, you can’t afford it.

Culturally, it’s certain digitors will experience slow acceptance. Human actors won’t give up their top dog rank without a fight. Although digitors can hide by changing their version number to a real name, they will struggle to earn their props because of on-set whispers of shallow personas, limited physicality, and occasional pixilation. Eventually acceptance will come. As they become more successful and regularly out themselves on Facebook, their fans will embrace them. I predict Keanu will be the first.

Even braver…
Competing standards are nothing new in the technology business but who expected it to pop-up in the performing arts. How about performance-capture versus performing androids? Consider the Japanese play “Sayonara” (really) in which Geminoid F (a very life-like looking android) plays alongside a human actress. Gemmy (as we like to think of her) is seated throughout the performance. Blinking eyes and a rising and falling chest help the illusion. Her voice and gestures are created by an actress off-stage. A camera captures the off-stage head and body movements. Gemmy moves in response to these signals. With a current price around $1.2 million, that will buy a lot of Gwyneth Paltrow look-alikes albeit for wheelchair roles. For now.

  • Ryan Marlow

    I really doubt that they’ll ever get to the point where an actual A.I. does all the acting unless it’s for some sort of virtual reality experience. However, younger versions of existing actors will definitely become more common.

  • Humm. Lots to -dare I say?- process here. Performance capture isn’t new (Golem) and digital recreations aren’t either (Tom Hanks in The Polar Express) and interaction between the real & unreal isn’t either (Who Framed Roger Rabbit?). There have been many non-human stars, from Lassie to Robbie the Robot and beyond. Paul in Paul and the 90s CGI creations which came before him all show us the way; virtual sets (Sky Captain & the World of Tomorrow, was it called?) behind virtual actors (whether controlled by an actor or digital artist) is a very obvious step. Done a decade ago with the original Toy Story. Nothing is new. AI controlled performance is more interesting & one day processing power & data storage will be so cheap even low budget films will be cheaper to ‘film’ in a computer than in the real world, with its food & transportation costs as a tiny tip of the iceburg. Digital distribution means you can find an audience for almost anything (see YouTube) so the only question is, will audiences pay a premium to see real people do real stunts/acting. Well, theatre is still going so… Anyway, interesting article. Thanks for posting it

  • In some perverse way I suppose the technology could eventually develop to aid actors who are mint with emotion, but lack the ‘hollywood’ look. However I’m not convinced it’ll ever become so cheap and easy to do that’ll it replace acting. Let alone purists will always fight it (I should point out that I don’t mean that in a demeaning manner, I think they should).

    I think as society exists now, we like having actors. Some celebrities of one sort or another we can either admire, or break apart (different strokes and all). Will this mean the end of celebrities? Maybe in 50 years or so. As for now, $$$ and time are the driving forces and Hollywood loves to keep both in check(relatively speaking)

    Great article!

  • Jonny Ashley

    Sorry, that was kind of weird when you busted out into science fiction. Definitely interesting though. It’s a brutal misconception to see what’s being done in Tron legacy and other motion capture films, and believe that we’re “discovering” new techniques for cgi.

    We do not at this point have any kind of “easy ways” of doing cgi. The idea of a cg character being operated by a single technician, like it were an animal trainer, is absurd at this point. The only reason that Jeff Bridges in Tron Legacy looks good is because many animators (notice the plural) painstakingly made it look good, with the motion capture technology used as a mere guiding tool. The notion of viewing Tron Legacy as a precursor to the birth of “cgi performers” is inaccurate. A more apt comparison would be if a Pixar character were nominated for Best Actor, which is becoming a distant, albeit slim possibility.

    Again, this article is nice as a science fiction piece, but I wasn’t expecting to read it here, and in serious tandem with talking about an upcoming movie. I think that we will sooner see a self-aware automaton win best actor, than a cg AI that realistically animates itself.

  • phil

    I see a future where actors in movies — still real people —- will become “photoshopped” in the same way as models in magazine photo ads.

    It’ll be subtle, but you’ll see impossibly slender and thin people, with flawless teeth, smoother skin, brighter larger eyes, bigger muscles, etc.

    The technology will also be used to smooth out wrinkles and hands, etc.

    Therefore, a 70-year-old George Clooney will still look younger on screen.

    What a strange future it’s going to be..

  • Actually I’m pretty sure that’s already being done. I’ve heard of examples where blemishes, love handles, etc., are being digitally removed from actors via CG.

  • Xidor

    The abs is 300 were cgi. They worked out for the role, but they were not that ripped.

  • Brendan

    Benjamin Button obviously got a lot of press on the aged Brad Pitt head, which was 100% CG (there’s a Ted Talk video out there on the interwebs that I saw about the tech they developed). But they also used a lot of de-aging tech in that film, too. Specifically, they made Cate Blanchett younger for a good portion of the film, as well as one scene with a teen or 20s aged Brad Pitt towards the end. I don’t know specifically how they did those effects, but they certainly were believable.

  • Brendan

    The Bridges Tron head is pretty good, but it seems slightly off from actual Bridges in his 30s. From what I understand, the 3d model of his head was based on scans of his current head, then adjusted to look younger. I think that’s the problem. As a person ages, different parts grow at different rates. Things like the nose & ears generally get bigger, and the skull continues growing as well, changing shape and size. So since they based their 3d model on the current dimensions of Bridges’s head and face, they would still have a lot to change to get a truly accurate version of a 35 year Bridges. It would have been nice if there was a lifecast of Bridges made in the 80s that they might have worked from rather than scanning the elder Bridges and trying to work backwards.

  • the examples sighted were story based where the cost vs. story telling benefit justified the action. the young jeff bridges is essential to the story structure, marketing and appeal of Tron:Legacy. The abs in 300 are part of a heighten look, pseudo sexual aspect of that entertainment by choice. the premise of this article is misguided because it comes from the stance the technology would become the norm, when in truth, it would be administered on a cost/benefit basis.

    it also comes from a stance that fame is finite and an actor, such as, bridges has timeless value. in reality, fame is always “just below the surface” and ready to be attached to a new young star reducing the appeal of an old one. fame is a by product of society and “groups” will find the new and young to hold up and admire. its part of “game theory” and finding false ways to hold on to “gods” after the “tribe” has move on is folly.

  • Joe

    now they can finally make a big lebowski prequel about the dude’s wasted college years

  • LisaM

    I have heard from detractors that CLU (Bridges) looks “off” in his scenes, but isn’t that ok, since CLU isn’t human, but a program. For that reason, I thought it looked great.