WIZARDS OF HOLLYWOOD: STEVE PREEG
This is the first installment in our new series "Wizards of Hollywood," where we shine a spotlight on the masters of movie magic, the effects specialists who can dazzle us with screen images of liquid robots, giants and goblins, ferocious dinosaurs or a special human soul who ages in reverse. Guest contributor Liesl Bradner begins the series today by talking to Steve Preeg, who is nominated for his first Oscar this year for his work as character supervisor on "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button."
Steve Preeg is an animation supervisor at Digital Domain. He has worked on "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," "King Kong" and "I, Robot" and was key in the creation of Gollum for "The Lord of the Rings" franchise. Right now he’s working on the revival of "Tron." His take on "Benjamin Button":
My most memorable scene is from "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," the one we referred to as "Benjamin’s Secret," where he is under the table with Daisy when they first meet. He’s explaining to her how he’s different. A sort of revelation to himself, that he’s hearing people talk that he’s going to die soon but he doesn’t know anything about it.
This series of shots is very close up and dialogue driven. It looks to the viewer that it’s a 70-year-old man with a 9-year-old girl late at night under a table, and that’s rather disturbing. But we had to make it innocent enough that it feels like a 15-year-old that is confused about things and still has to be Brad. We were trying to make a dirty old man feel innocent and do it in computer.
When Benjamin appears in his 80s, 70s and 60s, as in this scene, he is completely computer generated from the neck up. His head is entirely synthetic. They shot the scene on set with a 5-foot-2 body double during principal photography in New Orleans. with a blue hoodie with tracing markers covering his head. Meanwhile we had taken a very realistic-looking cast of Brad’s head that Rick Baker Studios did, a version of what they think he would look like at age 70. It was painted and hair was put in. We took lots of pictures of it and put them in the computer.
We also brought Brad into the studio and used a new "volumetric capture" technology that digitally photographs the entire surface of the face and enables a highly detailed reconstruction in the computer. We used that to capture his expressions while he moved his face in a lot of different positions, which gave us accurate geometry for the way his skin and muscles moved over his bones. That process gave us a digital library of everything Brad’s face could do….
We created software that took those expressions and matched them to data from video images of Brad actually performing the role of Benjamin. This animation rig was essentially a digital puppet that Brad’s own performance drove.
Once image analysis and the timing part is done, that’s when we get really involved and watch Brad’s performance to see what he’s trying to get across and perfect it. That’s when the human element really came into play. We struggled for months trying to get a subtle performance that’s close up and right in your face, to be believable. It wasn’t a Jim Carrey-esque, super-animated thing and it wasn’t hidden by motion blur, dinosaurs or rain. It was just a character in your face, giving his line and — hopefully — conveying the emotion Brad wanted to get across.
— Liesl Bradner
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Photo credits: "Benjamin Button" images from Paramount Pictures and Digital Domain.