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When you watch a movie these days, it’s difficult to tell what’s real and what’s created in a computer. In the future, visual effects could even alter how movies are made.

Almost anything that can be imagined by a director can now become reality in the world of movies.

“We’re really not limited by the technology to build pretty much anything we want,” said David Smith, of Sony Pictures Imageworks. Smith said that with today's computer processing power and speed, the digital world is more realistic than ever before.

For The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Smith's team created a Times Square that was indistinguishable from the real one in New York.

“If there’s lights inside the stores that are lighting areas inside the store, we put those lights in there. All the street lights on the street we put versions of that into the computer world so that it mimics the real world exactly,” said Smith.

But there is still one challenge for visual effects artists, said Paul Debevec of the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies.

“We’re still trying to figure out how to perfect the human face in movies,” said Debevec.

Debevec said the 2008 movie The Curious Case of Benjamin Button is still the best example of a computer-generated face, as actor Brad Pitt aged - backwards - from a wrinkled old man to a baby.

Debevec added that in addition to changing the look of an actor's face, there could be another use for digital faces in the world of entertainment.

“There’s also a big interest in trying to bring back actors who are no longer with us and that’s a big deal right now,” said Debevec.

Last year, effects artists created a digital double of deceased Asian pop singer Teresa Teng in concert with Chinese pop star Jay Chou. Fans can still see and hear the concert on YouTube.

“With a ton of data from us and a ton of artistic effort and technical know-how from Digital Domain, they were able to create a singing face of Teresa Teng where she performed not only one of her original songs but two songs that weren’t even written at the time she was alive with Jay Chou,” said Debevec.


Debevec expects directors will start to use more virtual production techniques, like those seen in the movie Avatar.

“Even though it looks like that’s a bunch of expensive technology, ultimately it’s going to be much easier to make movies that way,” he said.


Debevec said that with virtual production, there won’t be a need for as many people behind the scenes.

Sony Pictures Imageworks' David Smith pointed out that computer generated locations can also be more realistic to actors.

“That’s where potentially in the future, if we can help create the world in the computer and bring it to the set so they’re not acting in front of a green screen but they’re acting in front of a set that we’ve sort of mocked up in the computer that eventually will look more grandiose, they’ll have something to grasp there," said Smith.

But visual effects artists agree, even with improved technology and the potential to create anything in the virtual world, there is no replacement for a real actor interpreting a character in a movie.

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