News Tip: "Polar Express" Animation Foreshadows All-Digital Actors

"Researchers are already developing entirely digital actors," says visiting professor Timothy Lenoir

The new Christmas film "Polar Express" builds animated characters on the recorded movements of flesh-and-blood actors, but it may not be too long before computers alone can generate realistic character performances, says a Duke University expert on new media.

"Researchers are already developing entirely digital actors," said Timothy Lenoir, visiting professor in new technologies and society. "They are working on accurately representing body movement and combining that with computing techniques that integrate emotions and appropriate facial expressions and bodily postures into a virtual actor."

Lenoir said the clips of "Polar Express," which opens today (Wednesday), are reminiscent of work at the Institute for Creative Technologies at the University of Southern California, jointly funded by several film studios, including Disney Imagineering, and by the U.S. Army. "They are developing digital actors called thesbians," Lenoir said.

Lenoir said virtual actors offer some advantages over real ones. "You can have a permanent 40-year-old Sean Connery playing James Bond, without the problems of aging that affect the real Sean Connery. Digital thesbians can perform their own dangerous stunts in realistic simulated environments. Studios can avoid contract disputes and will also appreciate the willingness of digital actors to work for a microfraction of the cost of using real actors."

According to Lenoir, a public that spends increasing amounts of time playing computer games may develop a taste for virtual actors. "Perhaps we will prefer these digital thesbians to the real things. Already in Japan, some anime characters have huge fan followings that surpass many major screen actors. But then again, so did Mickey Mouse."