Making digital faces come to life is Mark Sagar's passion and now his decade of work on some of Hollywood's biggest films has won him an Academy Award.
Sagar was one of four men honoured by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for developing a lighting stage and facial rendering system which has helped create realistic digital characters and stunt doubles in films such as Spider-Man 2, King Kong and Avatar.
It was used to make digital stunt doubles for actors Tobey Maguire and Alfred Molina in Spider-Man 2 and an elderly version of Hollywood heart-throb Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button – the first extended performance of a digital actor in feature film history.
In James Cameron's worldwide hit Avatar, the system made it possible to add subtle skin textures, pores and fine details to the blue faces of its alien characters.
Sagar said Weta Digital, his employer, was sending him to the black-tie ceremony in Beverly Hills – which he calls "the geek version" of the Academy Awards – to receive the award in person.
"It was definitely a pleasant surprise ... I really felt like it was out of the blue.
I didn't realise what a big deal it was until I started getting phone calls and emails about it. Then it starts sinking in."
Sagar said the technology had made it possible to show the first close-up face of a completely digital actor in Spider-Man 2 – a scene in which Alfred Molina's character Doc Ock sinks into water.
"You couldn't tell it's not real. There's no end to what you can bring to life.
"If you can get a computer to give across that sense of life then that is a wonderful thing."
Sagar, a bio-engineer, never dreamed of a career in the film business but during the past decade he has had some amazing experiences, such as holding private screenings of his digital technology for director Steven Spielberg.
"There's a lot of stuff I didn't see coming. Life – you never know what's going to happen."
The lighting stage was invented by University of Southern California professor Paul Debevec and adapted for use in movies with help from Sagar, John Monos, of Sony Pictures Imageworks, and Tim Hawkins, of Light Stage.
A plaque featuring a representation of the Oscar statuette, in relief, will be presented to Sagar on February 20. The Academy Awards ceremony will be held on March 7.
Meanwhile, Avatar has now been nominated for 11 awards at the industry's Visual Effects Society ceremony on February 28.
Nine of the nominations relate to work done by Weta Digital staff.
HOW IT WORKS
Mark Sagar says the lighting stage he helped develop is, in simple terms, a blacked-out room with a chair in the middle. A three-metre-long semicircular rotating arm, mounted with 30 bright strobe lights spins around a seated actor. The lights illuminate the actor from 500 angles and in eight seconds it records what the actor's face looks like in any lighting conditions. This information tells a computer how to light the digital version of the actor.
Mr Sagar says every time the lights flash they make a popping sound which helps make the experience "the closest thing to a time machine that you can imagine".
He developed the technology with its inventor Paul Debevec, from the University of Southern California, before using it in a movie for the first time in 2002 for Spider-Man 2.
He used the technology to create the lighting effects on Naomi Watts' digital stunt double in King Kong.
It was used by one of Mr Sagar's co-award recipients, John Monos, to create a digital Superman character for Superman Returns.
In Avatar, because the characters are completely digital, the technology was used to get reference information off real faces to be transferred to the aliens. The lighting stage allowed them to replicate the textures and features of people's skin. It made it possible to transfer the detail of each pore, crease and wrinkle to the blue-skinned aliens.
- The Dominion Post