And the Academy Award Goes to ... a Computer Scientist

David Zentz for the Chronicle

Paul E. Debevec, who worked on the film "Avatar," shares the limelight with "Digital Emily," an animated digital actor produced at the U. of Southern California's graphics laboratory. The computer scientist is to receive an Academy Award this month.
February 07, 2010

Paul E. Debevec may be the only research professor whose laboratory subjects have included Charlize Theron and Will Smith. The University of Southern California computer scientist is about to take another unlikely step—from academe to the Academy Awards, for special effects. His pixel wizardry has been featured in films such as Spider-Man 2 and Avatar.

On February 20, in a black-tie geek gala hosted by the actress Elizabeth Banks, of Zack and Miri Make a Porno, Mr. Debevec will pick up an award in science and engineering for his work on digital facial-rendering technology. The 38-year-old professor leads the graphics laboratory at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies. In Avatar, a futuristic film set among the alien Na'vi people on the moon Pandora, Mr. Debevec's techniques helped map the faces of live actors onto digital puppets, creating astonishing realism amid fantasy. Back on Earth, he sees applications for the techniques in higher education.

Q. What is your Academy Award-winning invention?

A. It's for the Light Stage technologies. These are devices that capture the appearance of people's faces, so that if you create a digital version of them, the digital version looks just like the real person, as much as possible. And in particular, it reflects light the same way as the real person. So it looks like it's made out of real skin that has a natural shine to it.

Q. What's an example of how your system was used in Avatar?

A. In Avatar there's these blue aliens. And a number of them are tele-operated by humans. Those humans are real actors, like Sam Worthington, who is the protagonist of the film. They hired us to scan the actors and give them the data, which had three-dimensional geometry down to the level of tiny skin pores, fine creases in the skin, and also texture maps. They used that so that the avatar versions of these characters could be reminiscent in appearance of the real actors.

Q. Did actors come to campus?

A. Oh, yeah, they came to our institute in Marina del Rey. It turns out it's pretty convenient, because they were filming most of the motion capture for the project about a mile away from us. My favorite actor was Sam Worthington. He was very good at staying still while we scanned him.

Q. So do you get the full Oscar treatment, the red carpet, the dramatic envelope opening, the speech, the escort offstage by Scarlett Johansson?

A. It's not the main Oscar ceremony that everybody knows and loves on March 7. You actually have to be careful; we cannot call it an Oscar, technically. There are three levels of Academy Award in the scientific-and-technical category. The base level is a certificate that you get, and it has like a little picture of an Oscar on it. The next level up is a plaque, which is the Scientific and Engineering Award, which is what I'll be receiving.

Q. When you decided to become a professor, did you think winning an Academy Award would be part of your CV?

A. I knew it was always a possibility. Because the work I've done ever since grad school, ever since my Ph.D. thesis, has had some kind of impact in the motion-picture industry. I made a short film that in 1997 showed some surprisingly photorealistic fly-arounds of the Berkeley campus. One of the people who saw it was a fellow named John Gaeta, who was the visual-effects supervisor for the movie The Matrix. At the time, he was trying to figure out how to get all the computer graphics to work together right for these things that ended up being called the "bullet time" shots (where time appears to stand still). When he saw my film, he realized this was the path to solving some of the key problems.

Q. Can a professor get rich doing this stuff?

A. It's possible. Hasn't happened yet, in this particular case. They pay the institute the money for the scanning. I don't get any of that directly myself.

Q. Does your work have any application to higher education and online courses?

A. Absolutely, yes. Maybe there's a little rendering of a chemistry professor at the side of the screen who smiles at you when you get the question right and frowns when you get the question wrong. [In perhaps 10 years] that computer might, through its Web cam, look back at you, see where you're looking on the screen, see how engaged you are, and actually adapt itself to trying to teach you in the way that it seems to be working the best. Just like one-on-one tutoring. No one can afford large-scale one-on-one tutoring—we just can't afford that kind of student-faculty ratio. One could imagine supplementing traditional education with these virtual mentors.

Q. Your father, Paul T. Debevec, is a professor emeritus of physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. What does he think of your movie work?

A. I think he is happy, though occasionally bemused. He is a little removed from popular culture, and I don't know if he's even seen Avatar yet. He was certainly excited when we made the November 2007 cover of Physics Today.