Viral Video: Could digital imaging resurrect Philip Seymour Hoffman's acting career?

A human facial animation 101 video course raises questions about reality and the power of digitization.

Actress Emily O’Brien explains the basics of human facial animation in this video produced by Image Metrics, a studio working in conjunction with the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technology. Over 800,000 people have viewed the clip, but how many of them noticed that the Emily interviewed in the video — who looks irradiated in Botox — is not the real Emily? She is a digital clone, copied from a computer scan of the human Emily’s face, hair and upper body.

This YouTube clip has been around since 2008, but thanks to a recent article in the New Yorker (“Pixel Perfect” April 28th by Margaret Talbot) I predict Digital Emily is now creeping out a whole new slew of viewers. She certainly gives me the willies, as does her new BFF, Digital Ira, the latest creation from computer scientist Paul Debevec. He's the re-animating inventor of the technology that may put an end to the acting profession.

For reasons I can’t fathom, Debevec and his team of wizards will work for hours, days, weeks and months to digitally recreate the moistened corners of an actor’s eye or the textural density of their hair. The resulting human facsimiles can then be made to do what real humans do.

So, I wonder: Why not simply, uh, hire the real human?

“I can speculate about what this technology could be useful for, but that’s not what’s driving us,” says Debevec. ”What’s driving us is what’s cool and new. I want to see it.”

One of his projects involves conjuring up digital clones of Holocaust survivors, preserving them forever in a kind of holographic aspic. Another may mean harvesting footage of the late Philip Seymour Hoffman and scanning the fragments to build a clone of the actor so he can finish his work on the next “Hunger Games” installment. The possibilities of this digital necromancy may be endless, and it may also mean the end of any need at all for human beings.

If, like me, you still tend to buy your groceries with the help of an actual cashier (rather than those job-killing auto-scanners), imagine what it will be like when your local Safeway is staffed by digital clones. Worse yet, imagine what they’ll look like on their smoke break.

For more Viral Video nuggets, go here.


Rustin Thompson is a filmmaker, film critic and indie radio deejay. He enjoys strong coffee, red wine, IPAs and his wife and grown children. He is comfortable with the fact he will never be rich, but grows petulant if he thinks too much about it.

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