Building The Curious Faces Of 'Benjamin Button' Effects-driven acting? Actor-fueled effects? The line between performance and technology has rarely been thinner than in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Laura Sydell goes behind the scenes with the FX gurus who helped make it happen.

Building The Curious Faces Of 'Benjamin Button'

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

At the Academy Awards on Sunday, the movie "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," is up for 13 awards. They include nominations for actor Brad Pitt and for special effects.

In the case of this movie, the two are not unrelated. In fact, in a third of the movie, it isn't Brad Pitt we see at all but a computer-generated reproduction.

But as NPR's Laura Sydell wondering, how much longer it might be before directors and studios try making real-looking characters without real actors?

LAURA SYDELL: "Benjamin Button" is about a child born old who ages backwards.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Ms. TARAJI P. HENSON (Actor): (As Queenie) He's not a well child, so going to have to take good care of him.

Unidentified Woman #1 (Actor): (As character) I had 10 children. There's not a baby I can't care for. Let me see him.

(Soundbite of baby crying)

Unidentified Woman #2 (Actor): (As character) Oh, God in heaven, he looks just like my ex-husband.

SYDELL: Actually, he looks like an 80-year-old Brad Pitt whose head is on the body of an infant - looks like, looks just like, but isn't.

Mr. STEVE PREEG (Character Supervisor, Digital Domain): He's not Brad at all. He's not in any of the shots. There's 325 shots, 52 minutes of the film, where there is no actual footage of Brad.

SYDELL: Steve Preeg is with the special effects studio Digital Domain. Essentially, they were able to make a computer-generated copy of Pitt's head and age it digitally. Then Pitt came in, and they got the computer-generated head to imitate him.

Take the scene where he gets up from a wheelchair in a church and walks.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Mr. LANCE E. NICHOLS (Actor): (As Preacher) How old are you?

Mr. BRAD PITT (Actor): (As Benjamin Button) Seven, but I look a lot older.

SYDELL: The head on his body is computer-generated, but it really is Pitt's performance, says Digital Domain's Ed Ulbrich.

Mr. ED ULBRICH (Executive Producer of Visual Effects, Digital Domain): Brad decided to do something very different than we had thought he was going to do. He ends up getting this kind of crazy kind of Popeye look on his face, and he's just thrilled, and he's smiling, and he's going through all these emotions. And I don't think that it's something that any of us would have thought of or had attempted had Brad not done that.

(Soundbite of movie, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button")

Mr. NICHOLS: (As Preacher) In the name of God's glory, rise up.

SYDELL: It actually wasn't Brad Pitt rising up, and that is what is so amazing about "Benjamin Button." The studio accomplished something that had never been done before in animation. They made a computer-generated person look real. If they had failed, well, it would have been like zombies in "The Night of the Living Dead."

(Soundbite of movie, "The Night of the Living Dead")

Unidentified Woman #3 (Actor): (As Character) Oh, my god. Oh, Tommy.

SYDELL: Zombies are so scary because they are so close to looking human, but they're just a little bit off. That's what computer-generated humans have looked like up till now. The space between zombies and the computer-generated Brad Pitt is something called the uncanny valley.

What that means is that when a robot or computer-generated character gets really close to looking human, if it doesn't go all the way, it looks creepy. That's why zombies wig people out, says Digital Domain's Preeg.

Mr. PREEG: Even though they're a lot closer to humans than a primitive robot, people react better to the primitive robot and would rather have that around than a zombie in the house.

SYDELL: That's why it's been a lot easier for Pixar to make a robot named Wall-E cuddly than it was for Digital Domain to make a believably human reproduction of Brad Pitt.

They knew they couldn't get anything wrong - not a dimple, not a wry smile, not a crease in the forehead - or they were in zombie land.

Mr. PREEG: In fact, we had a hard time hiring people for this show because everyone thought we were going to fail. No one wanted to be associated with a project where we made Brad Pitt look creepy and, you know, a $150 million movie goes down the toilet because we made a zombie Brad.

SYDELL: But now that they've done it, gone to the other side of the uncanny valley, much more may be possible. There is no reason that they can't create a believable human character that isn't based on a movie star.

Mr. PAUL DEBEVEC (Associate Director of Graphics Research, University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies): In terms of what we needed to figure out to be there, we are there right now.

SYDELL: Paul Debevec runs the USC Graphics Lab and worked on the "Benjamin Button" technology.

Mr. DEBEVEC: It's just a matter of a couple more film projects coming through that really refine the technologies. But the genie's out of the bottle.

SYDELL: But animators do need some sort of real human model, says animation supervisor Betsy Paterson.

Ms. BETSY PATERSON (Visual Effects Supervisor, Rhythm and Hues): Most of the animators have a mirror right by their monitor so that as they're working, they kind of make the faces and kind of try to figure out what is that essential thing that really gives you the feeling of the mood or attitude that you're trying to convey.

SYDELL: But it's a lot easier to deal with an animator than a famous movie star and a famous movie star's ego. In fact, they made a movie about this in 2002. It's called "S1m0ne." Al Pacino is the harried director, Viktor Taransky, demanding actress played by Winona Ryder.

(Soundbite of movie, "S1m0ne")

Ms. WINONA RYDER (Actor): (As Nicola Anders) It is not the size of the role, Viktor. Am I or am I not entitled to the biggest trailer on the lot? Hmm?

Mr. AL PACINO (Actor): (As Viktor Taransky) It's the biggest on earth.

SYDELL: A mad scientist gives Taransky the computer technology to fashion a star out of his own imagination.

Mr. PACINO: (As Viktor Taransky) I have recreated the infinite nuances of a human being - a human soul.

SYDELL: Well, not so fast, Taransky. It may be harder than you think for a computer to recreate the sultry beauty of Greta Garbo, the brooding presence of a Marlon Brando or even the winning smile of a Brad Pitt.

UCLA acting professor Judith Moreland says when the real Brad Pitt finally showed up a third of the way through "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," she knew.

Professor JUDITH MORELAND (Theater, University of California, Los Angeles): You could hear the whole audience in the movie theater kind of sigh, one, just the beauty of Brad Pitt and also the recognition of actually seeing an entire human being.

SYDELL: Moreland believes a real actor has ineffable quality, and it isn't necessarily in the dialogue.

Prof. MORELAND: I'm always so interested in watching actors think.

SYDELL: Moreland points out George Clooney in "Michael Clayton"...

(Soundbite of movie, "Michael Clayton")

(Soundbite of car door)

SYDELL: the very end of the film after Clayton has seen his whole world fall apart.

Prof. MORELAND: And he gets into the cab - and it's actually happening while the credits are being rolled.

(Soundbite of movie, "Michael Clayton")

Mr. GEORGE CLOONEY (Actor): (As Michael Clayton) Just drive.

SYDELL: Clooney sits in the cab, his eyes darting over the scenes of New York passing by the windows. He draws in a few deep breaths.

Prof. MORELAND: We were enthralled by him, wondering, what is he thinking, or I bet he's thinking about this, or look how he's sifting through all this information.

I still think that there is something about actually looking at a human being and seeing something real look back at you, real human. So it's about that human connection.

SYDELL: Moreland says real human beings have a light in their eyes that she can't imagine a computer could ever recreate. In fact, animators say it is the eyes that are their biggest challenge. Still, now that they've done what was once considered impossible, it's hard to believe they aren't going to try to breathe life into an entirely computer-generated person.

Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

NORRIS: You can watch a video showing how special effects experts created an aged Brad Pitt on our Web site. That's at

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