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Taiwanese software engineer transforms movie industry

2019/02/18 18:31:21

Ma Wan-chun (馬萬鈞, left) / Photo courtesy of Ma Wan-chun (馬萬鈞)

Taipei, Feb. 18 (CNA) Taiwanese software engineer Ma Wan-chun (馬萬鈞) and a team based in the University of Southern California (USC) have been transforming movie visual effects for a decade with face-digitizing technology, and was acknowledged by the Academy Awards this year.

Ma, who now works as an engineer for Google, won the Scientific and Technical Achievement Award along with his colleagues, at the 91st Academy Awards presented Feb. 9, for their work in computer graphics developed at USC's Institute for Creative Technologies.

The award-winning technology -- the Polarized Spherical Gradient Illumination -- is a facial appearance capture method using a dome-shaped object called the Light Stage X, according to Google. When an actor performs inside the Light Stage X, he is illuminated by some 300 LED lightbulbs and his poses are captured by cameras from different angles.

This footage is converted into 3D models that are then used for visual effects, enabling the computer to understand the geometry, pore texture and light properties of a face, Google said.

Ma said the technology, which can generate lifelike facial expressions, has transformed the movie industry for over a decade.

For example, it created an older version of Brad Pitt in 2008's "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," brought the Na'vi tribe to the screen in 2009's "Avatar" and re-created Paul Walker's performance in 2015's "Furious 7" even after the actor passed away mid-production.

Since childhood, Ma has been fascinated by visual effects in movies and video games, such as the diverse alien characters in the "Star Wars" movie series, and the combination between real actors and animated backgrounds in the 1994 game "Wing Commander 3."

Ma said that because the field of computer graphics is still in its infancy in Taiwan, the Graduate Student Study Abroad Program of Taiwan's National Science Council helped him a lot.

Under the program, he went to USC and met his faculty advisor, Paul Debevec, one of the award recipients alongside Ma, who brought the Taiwanese student into his research team in 2005 to develop the facial capture system.

Ma told CNA that instead of only researching for his doctoral dissertation, he always wanted to put his expertise in computer graphics into practice, and the work with his USC team helped him to "turn imagination into reality."

Ma said the team's next step is to transfer the realistic visual effects presented on the cinema screen to the screen of the smartphone, by applying the current technology to the fields of augmented reality and virtual reality.

According to Google, one of the most recent films Ma's team has worked on, "Ready Player One," has been nominated for the Best Visual Effects Academy Award this year, with the final result to be announced at the presentation ceremony Feb. 24.

(By Lin Hung-han and Chi Jo-yao)