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Faceshift: Democratizing Animation
Brian Amberg is an animated movie buff who can wax poetic about the relative perfection (or not) of animated faces, from early Walt Disney to Pixar’s breakthrough Toy Story to the Gollum character in Lord of the Rings.
Doug Griffin is a clone. Really. He’s the guy behind the clone close-ups in Episode II: Attack of the Clones. He also directed and supervised the motion capture—the technique that records an actor’s real life movements for the purposes of digital animation—in Episode III, including the digital doubles of ObiWan, C3P0, and the Wookies.
Recently, Amberg and Griffin represented their company, the Swiss startup Faceshift, in the CTI Market Entry Camp USA program at swissnex San Francisco. Their intentions: nothing less than revolutionizing animated games and films and maybe forever changing the way we communicate online.
Faceshift, a spinoff of both EPFL and ETH in Switzerland, has developed an easy and inexpensive tool for infusing emotional life into digital avatars by handling faces with incredible accuracy. That’s been difficult and expensive to do until now, cutting out indie filmmakers and up and coming gaming studios. But with Faceshift, the barrier for entry drops from hundreds of thousands of dollars to less than $2,000 per year, well within reach even for hobbyists.
Faces have been the Holy Grail of animation because they are so difficult to get right. Once the character looks convincing, the level of motion seems too stiff and robotic. This, says Amberg, is referred to as the Uncanny Valley.
Speaking from Switzerland, Faceshift’s CEO and Co-Founder, Thibaut Weise, explains how the company’s software allows so-called markerless motion capture, which is supremely good at dealing with faces, expressions, and therefore believable emotion and movement.
The software takes advantage of readily available 3D cameras like the Microsoft Kinect—cameras that will most likely end up in laptops and mobile phones within a year—and analyzes the data in real time. An actor, or for that matter someone logging onto Skype if you extend the idea, can be instantly mapped onto a digital avatar that’s infused with the expressions and movements of its model. Those avatars can then be integrated into the characters and 3D scenes of animated films and games, democratizing animation by offering the highest quality available at a low cost.
Amberg and Bay Area local Griffin, Faceshift’s Sales and Marketing Manager, utilized the swissnex office as a home base to meet with industry insiders and pursue new business throughout West, including the Southern California filmmaking world.
The company wasn’t a swissnex stranger when they arrived for the CTI Camp. Back in March, Faceshifters visited swissnex San Francisco to participate in GDC, the largest conference of gaming professionals in the world. Their technology was also the backbone of the artistic work, Mimicry, shown the same week in an exhibit called Game Gazer, curated and shown at swissnex.
Faceshift may very well satisfy Amberg’s quest for the perfect face in an animated film. And for Griffin, who knows, maybe the next Star Wars film will use Faceshift software to get up close and personal with a Wookie.