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Army-Funded Visual Effects Technology Wins Oscar

Dept. of Defense

Creative geniuses behind digital humans and human-like characters in Hollywood blockbusters Avatar, Blade Runner 2049, Maleficent, Furious 7, The Jungle Book, Ready Player One, and others have U.S. Army-funded technology to thank for visual effects.

That technology was developed at the U.S. Army Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT) at the University of Southern California (USC). The ICT is funded by the RDECOM Research Laboratory, the Army's corporate research laboratory (ARL).

Developers of that technology were recently announced winners of one of nine scientific and technical achievements by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

A Technical Achievement Award will be presented during the Academy's annual Scientific and Technical Awards presentation at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills on February 9, 2019, to Paul Debevec, Tim Hawkins and Wan-Chun Ma for the invention of the Polarized Spherical Gradient Illumination facial appearance capture method, and to Xueming Yu for the design and engineering of the Light Stage X capture system. The Scientific and Technical Academy Awards demonstrate a proven record of contributing significant value to the process of making motion pictures.

"Polarized Spherical Gradient Illumination was a breakthrough in facial capture technology, allowing shape and reflectance capture of an actor's face with sub-millimeter detail, enabling the faithful recreation of hero character faces. The Light Stage X structure was the foundation for all subsequent innovation and has been the keystone of the method's evolution into a production system." The new high-resolution facial scanning process uses a custom sphere of computer-controllable LED light sources to illuminate an actor's face with special polarized gradient lighting patterns, which allow digital cameras to digitize every detail of every facial expression at a resolution down to one-tenth of a millimeter.

The technology has been used by the visual effects industry to create digital human and human-like characters in a number of movies, and has scanned over 100 actors, including Tom Cruise, Angelina Jolie, Zoe Saldana, Hugh Jackman, Brad Pitt, and Dwayne Johnson, at USC ICT.

Additionally, the Light Stage technology assists the military in facilitating recordings for its Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention (SHARP) program through a system called The Digital Survivor of Sexual Assault (DS2A). DS2A leverages research technologies previously created for the Department of Defense under the direction of the ARL and allows soldiers to interact with digital guest speakers and hear their stories.

As part of the ongoing SHARP training, this technology enables new SHARP personnel, as well as selected Army leaders, to participate in conversations on SHARP topics through the lens of a survivor's firsthand account. It is the first system of its kind to be used in an Army classroom.

All four awardees were members of USC ICT's Graphics Laboratory during development of the technology from 2006 through 2016.

Paul Debevec continues as an Adjunct Research Professor at USC Viterbi and the USC ICT Vision & Graphics Lab. Wan-Chun "Alex" Ma was Paul Debevec's first Ph.D. student at USC ICT, and Xueming Yu joined the USC ICT Graphics Lab in 2008 as a USC Viterbi master's student. Tim Hawkins now runs a commercial light stage scanning service in Burbank for OTOY, which licensed the light stage technology through USC Stevens in 2008.

This is the second Academy Scientific and Technical Award given to the Light Stage technology developed at the USC ICT. The first, given nine years ago for the earliest light stage capture devices and the "image-based facial rendering system developed for character relighting in motion pictures," was awarded to Paul Debevec, Tim Hawkins, John Monos, and Mark Sagar.

Established in 1999, the Army's ICT is a DoD-sponsored University Affiliated Research Center (UARC) working in collaboration with the RDECOM Research Laboratory. UARCs are aligned with prestigious institutions conducting research at the forefront of science and innovation.

To view the original press release on ARL’s website, visit

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