The Curious Case of Benjamin Button’s Head

The technical creativity involved in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has been greatly admired by the general public and VFX specialists alike. Achieving the highest ‘commercial’ accolade possible with a 2009 Oscar win for best visual effects; it also took top honours at this year Visual Effects Society Awards.

The film won four VES Awards including best visual effects in a visual-effects-driven motion picture’s and best single visual effect of the year’s. All four prizes were awarded for work central to the title character head, which featured Brad Pitt face acting on an all-digital head and neck.

Even those people with knowledge of CGI work are surprised to hear that for approximately one third of the movie Benjamin Button is a 100% computer-generated head on a live actor body.

“There’s 325 shots – 52 minutes of the film – where there is no actual footage of Brad,” says Steve Preeg, a character supervisor at Digital Domain, the studio that created the majority of VFX for the film. “He’s not in any of the shots.”

DD VFX Supervisor Eric Barba was involved with the film from its inception and outlines details of where the CGI head begins and ends; and when Brad Pitt is left to fend for himself.

“The first “digital head” shot is the one we did for the test, where there’s a long dolly and pan until the audience sees Benjamin sitting at the table banging his spoon. That’s the first body actor for Ben in his 80s, as he grows younger we have another body actor take over for him in his 70s, when he goes out on the tugboat with Cap’n Mike and goes to the bar.”

“The bulk of our work is the “Ben 70” character, and “Ben 60” when he leaves home. One of our last shots is when he is reading the letter from Daisy on the back of the tugboat. The line where he tells the Captain, “Well you do drink a lot”, that’s where the real Brad takes over. ‘

With the body actor performing from the neck down, his head was replaced with one that was computer generated and based on Pitt’s performance. The character was created using a combination of VFX tools and techniques, some developed for the project at Digital Domain.

‘For Benjamin Button we could not create the performance in animation, we had to translate it from Brad performance …. we shot him [Brad] performing the role on a sound stage with four HD cameras and used image analysis technology to get animation curves and timings that drove our proprietary deformation rig.’ Barba explains.

It is generally believed that “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” has set a new benchmark in the VFX community.

Fincher has made a movie that will be endlessly debated, for its storytelling craft as well as for the overwhelming nature of its visual effects. LA Times Review 25 Nov 2008.

About Digital Domain
Since its founding in 1993 by film industry icons, Digital Domain has been a force and a change agent in the world of creative content. The digital production studio has built a legacy of achievement in visual effects, receiving six Academy Awards and listing Titanic, The Day After Tomorrow, and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button among its 65+ film credits. A creative giant in the world of advertising, Digital Domain has earned scores of Clio, AICP, and Cannes Lion awards for some of the industry most memorable spots. A-list directors work with Digital Domain on features, advertising and projects that cross traditional media boundaries.

Digital Domain continues to push into new territory. The company is being recognized for its pioneering work in photo-real digital humans and productions that bring the worlds of films, advertising, games and the web closer together. Digital Domain is privately held and based in Venice, California.

RELATED LINKS:
www.digitaldomain.com
www.benjaminbutton.com

Sources:
FXGuide Interview With Eric Barba -The Curious Case of Aging Visual Effects by Bill Dawes 01 Jan 2009 (view here)

Building The Curious Faces Of ‘Benjamin Button’ by Laura Sydell 16 Feb 2009 (view here)

Button tops Visual Effects Awards – Variety David S. Cohen 02 Feb 2009 (view here)




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