Building a b3ta world

Written by Chris Caines

October 1, 2004 | 01:00

Tags: #actors #cgi #hollywood #text-to-speech #voiceover

Imagine a world where there are no actors, no actresses and no sets. There are no vocals and no live action, there is nothing.

You may be thinking that I’m referring to an Equilibrium-esque world without emotion or art; however I am talking about the movies of the future; a time when there will be no need for actors to exist at all.

My interest in this stemmed from a very popular site called b3ta, where the aim of the message board is to digitally create and alter images, essentially for a laugh. However, they do uncover an interesting trend in digital photo manipulation and show the ease at which you can fake a photograph to make it seem real. Several examples of this are uncovered on the Urban Legends website Snopes where their aim is to debunk (rather satisfyingly I might add) popular urban myths and, more recently, faked photographs sent over the Internet.

"One thing which fully CGI films suffer from is "over-realism""

Some of the most common of these recently have been the Shark attacking a diver, the 89 Pound Cat and the more harrowing photo of a potential victim of the September 11th WTC attacks. The obvious link between all these photos, now you’ve had a chance to look at them, is that they’ve all successfully fooled millions of people into thinking they’re real.

What makes them particularly unique is that these pictures are simply the work of enthusiastic artists with a copy of something like Adobe Photoshop or Jasc Paint Shop Pro. There would have been a time many years ago when this level of manipulation were restricted to those with access to both analogue and digital equipment worth thousands of pounds. Now these technologies are easily within the reach of your average home user, a million lifetimes of pent-up graphic design talent are aching to get out… And this talent is good.

So, the question we have is that if all these impressive amateur artists can create such convincing pieces of work, what can the massive army employed by industry heavyweights like Industrial Light and Magic or Pixar create?

Clearly we have the obvious movies such as Shrek and Toy Story which show what are perceived to be the boundaries of conventional Computer Generated Imagery (CGI), however they are blatantly nowhere near realistic and no-one in their right mind could think otherwise. Or could they?

One thing which fully CGI films suffer from is ‘over-realism’, if you own the DVD of A Bug’s Life, watch the opening titles with the leaf falling on the river and the panning up over the wheat field. The only thing which would lead you to believe that these are not real images are the colours are simply too vivid and the imagery too sharp. However, we have already been shown that things can be made too realistic, so it should logically be possible to make them less realistic.

Obvious CGI has been used for years in films, as early as the mid 1980’s with Flight of the Navigator. Progression onto films such as Terminator 2 and The Matrix, where use of CGI is crucial for creating the effects way beyond the capacity of conventional techniques. When they go overboard, such as the 100 Agent Smith brawl in Matrix Reloaded, the trained eye can see easily the line between reality and fantasy, but as each day goes on it is getting harder to spot.


Take a film which the average cinema goer may assume has little to no digital manipulation in it, let’s say Forrest Gump. In fact this film was literally riddled with effects, from pasting Forrest into a conversation with famous figures from history, to removing the legs from Gary Sinise. If you didn’t know what you were looking for, you’d be hard pressed to tell and this film came out ten years ago. In the same vein, the late Brandon Lee (who was tragically killed filming The Crow) had his face digitally added onto another actor to complete the scenes required after his death.

"How soon before we can almost fully render photo-realistic humans and paste them onto photorealistic backgrounds?"

This kind of technology is happening ten years ago and it was enough to slip most movie-goers by then, so imagine what the possibilities are like now and how many digital effects are being used already in all manner of films. We all know and love (or hate) Gollum in Lord of the Rings, however his only real indication of being a virtual character is that he is a mythical character. How soon before we can almost fully render photo-realistic humans and paste them onto photorealistic backgrounds (which are arguably far easier to do already)?

Voice synthesis is also coming along leaps and bounds, not quite at the pace of visuals; however it is already possible to create a human voice which could be passed off a real to a casual listener. Already we are using near-to-realistic voice synthesis in Text-to-Speech applications such as playing Emails over the telephone or audio conversion for the blind and again all these are being created in real time on a users PC.

I’m sure you can already see where I’m going with this, if such films as The Matrix can be almost exclusively shot using a ‘Green Screen’ with many of the backgrounds and effects being digitally generated, how long can it realistically be before we no longer need the actors themselves? I’m sure that the Actors Union will of course have something to say about this eventuality, however I’m more than happy to predict that, in my lifetime, I will see a film entirely generated by computer which doesn’t have the tell-tale signs of being a Cartoon, a Fantasy or Science Fiction.

Besides, can a computer really be any more wooden than some of the actors around at the moment? It can’t be that hard to make a faceless expression behind sunglasses and say the word, “Woah” occasionally. Oh wait…
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