Capturing a realistic representation of a face isn’t as simple as snapping a picture in good light. “Skin is a unique material,” says Otoy’s Academy Award-winning technologist, Tim Hawkins. “It’s a little bit like a cloud,”—a mesh of tissue and blood vessels reflecting light in a way that gives facial complexion a textured luminosity, over patches of bumpy skin and subtle shadows. Indeed, it’s the lack of detail that gives CGI-created faces a suspicious sense of unrealistic perfection, tipping them into the dreaded “uncanny valley.”
Otoy’s solution is to bask a human face in 360 degrees of bright light, which allows a computer to recreate the effects of light at any angle and any intensity of luminosity, from an early-morning sunrise to a full moon. Actors step into large hollow sphere, surrounded by dozens of high-wattage bulbs. Six high-resolution professional cameras stationed in four corners at eye-level snap photos, as a series of light patterns is projected onto the actor’s face. The surreal, eye-tearing experience only takes about five minutes to capture a blank stare expression.
Should an actor want to express more than just a blank stare, the LightStage can capture facial expressions of all contortions. Running through the full catalog of human expressions, the Facial Action Coding System, users act out every possible dramatic and silly expression, as LightStage captures facial muscles stretched in enough ways that a computer can “puppeteer” any emotion in the future.