The concept of a virtual actor has been tossed about since the beginning of motion pictures. An actor that can act however the director wants, not need fifteen takes to get the part right, never screw up his lines, and will never shy away from performing a stunt. However, stuffed dummies can't talk, stop and go motion techniques aren't advanced enough to look realistic, and computer graphics hadn't gotten to the desired point....... yet. Now, Industrial Light and Magic has produced what can be argued to be the first virtual actor. Draco the dragon walks, flys, talks and makes you believe, for about two hours, that such a creature exists.
[Image courtesy of the VFXHQ]
The first step that producer Raffaella de Laurentiis and director Rob Cohen went through was to visualize what their virtual actor would look like. What they came up with was quite spectacular. They imagined a dragon of legend, one with an irridescent hide, relatively small wings to enable flight, and human-like emotions. Essentially, Draco was intended from the beginning to be the most advanced work of computer animation ever undertaken.
The creation of Draco took a great deal of time, and was made up of several steps. First an example sculpture was created and sent to the computer graphics company, who then hired a sculptor to transform the sample into a working model. This gave them an idea of what the finished product would look like, as well as raising some of the issues they would have to deal with later, such as scale, complexity, believable movements, expressions, and speaking.
Next, the model was taken to ILM to be digitized. The entire 5-foot model was scanned into the computer, but Draco was so complex that the ILM crew decided to build him in the computer by hand. Using the model as a starting point, it tool four programmers five months using Alias|Wavefront software on Silicon Graphics workstations to build the model of Draco. During this process, many of the impractical parts of the dragon were taken out. They weeded out such non-workable things like the irridescent hide, which distracted from the dragon when animated. Next, they went through and deleted any extraneous data points from the computer model, so that they could get virtually the same dragon with far less work on the computer's part. An example of where this is useful: the T-rex from Jurassic Park had approximately 15,000 points of animation. Draco had more than 40,000, with more points involving his head than the T-rex had total. Eliminating any points possible was very useful.
After shooting all the live action footage with the human actors, the film, along with the recordings of Sean Connery doing his lines for the dragon, was handed over to ILM to have the dragon added. They accomplished this by writing a rendering utility named Caricature, or Cari for short, and using it to quickly create and coordinate the huge number of data points necessary to render a complex main character such as Draco. An advantage that Cari presented over SoftImage, was that the animators could work with a fully shaded model, rather than just the wireframe.
One of the largest problems facing the ILM team was unique to Draco among all previous computer generated creatures. The dragon was required to express emotions, essentially to act on the screen. To accomplish this task, animators had to shape the face of Draco to resemble Sean Connery's, using facial expressions from his previous movies as reference. They watched video recordings of Connery reading his lines, and the result was a dragon that not only sounded like Sean Connery, but acted and looked like him as well. The problem of making Draco look like he was actually talking was solved by the same process.
[Image courtesy of the VFXHQ]
The final result of years of work is what should be considered the pinnacle of achievement in computer graphics to this point: a fully computer generated actor who can talk, fly, walk, breathe, and most importantly express emotion. Draco is a virtual actor, and hopefully only the predecessor of what is to come.
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Computer Effects: Creatures, Jurassic Park
Last Updated August 21, 1996