Michigan Engineering News

Paul Debevec stands in front of a black background with the Emmy television academy awards logo patterned throughout, holding an academy award and smiling.

A flying chevette

Paul Debevec’s pioneering techniques in computer graphics and virtual production have revolutionized filmmaking and are now shaping the future of the entertainment industry.

Everything changed for U-M undergrad Paul Debevec (BSE Comp ’92, BS LSA ’92) in 1991 when he created a computer-generated visualization of his Chevette. Inspired by the opening sequence of Back to the Future, Part 2, the model combined techniques from computer vision and computer graphics. The passion project set him on a career path that would one day revolutionize filmmaking and earn him The Charles F. Jenkins Lifetime Achievement Award given by the Emmys.

“This all started with the Chevette Project,” Debevec said, while accepting the award at the 74th Engineering, Science & Technology Emmy Awards on Sept. 28, 2022. “So, thanks to my mom for giving me a 1980 Chevette. If she’d given me a cooler car, I wouldn’t have had to put so much effort into trying to make it fly using computer graphics.”

Debevec was honored for his pioneering work combining high dynamic range imagery with image-based lighting, which makes it possible to record and reproduce the light of both real and virtual environments to create a seamless transition between the two. His methods are now essential techniques used in computer graphics for VFX and virtual production.

What’s more, Debevec pioneered the Light Stage, which uses LED lighting in virtual production and is becoming the mainstay tool for lighting actors on virtual stages. For example, the Disney+ Star Wars show “The Mandalorian” uses this technology to project digital environments behind the actors on the set, creating a more detailed, realistic environment for the actors and crew to interact with. This involved building a 75-foot-diameter performance space made of LED walls that projects dynamic digital environments, allowing for pixel-accurate tracking and perspective-correct 3D imagery rendered at high resolution via systems powered by NVIDIA GPUs. This tool is expected to become the norm for all kinds of film and television productions going forward.

Debevec has worked directly on many films, including “Spider-Man 2,” where his techniques made possible the famous close-up shot of Doctor Octopus drowning in the river at the end. He’s also known for “Avatar,” “The Hobbit,” “Blade Runner 2049” and “Free Guy.”

One of his most impactful works was his 1999 short film “Fiat Lux.” In it, he digitally recreates St. Peter’s Basilica. Falling mirrored globes, as well as tumbling life-sized dominoes, are an abstract representation of the conflict between Galileo and the church. The film showcased new techniques in image-based modeling, rendering, lighting and high dynamic range rendering, and it led Debevec to his next project— applying the same techniques to accurately recreate human faces.

Debevec created the first Light Stage to study how light reflects off skin, eyeballs and bone structure at different angles. By incorporating details about the translucency of skin, Debevec paved the way for digital renderings of humans that look almost real.

“All computer graphics challenges are about, ‘How do you render realistic environments? How do you render realistic people and clothing hair and all of this?’” Debevec said. “What’s going to happen in the future is that AI will be able to generate animations of people who don’t exist, and it will be so real you won’t be able to tell the difference.”

This new frontier of filmmaking will not require living actors to simulate realistic-looking people on screen. It has the potential to revolutionize not only movies, but video games, advertising and other media as well. But Debevec does not think this will replace movie-making as we know it—or actors, for that matter.

“I think back to when movies first came out,” Debevec said. “I wonder what actors thought of this new medium where you can be recorded on film and your performance can be re-lived even after you’re gone. What a mind warp that would have been! But people adapted to it, and then they adapted to talkies.”

For Debevec, the new technology simply opens up more avenues for creative storytelling, and, he hopes, will allow more people to tell more kinds of stories. In addition, it can enrich interactive virtual entertainment, like online games. But there’s still much that can’t be replaced. 

“We’ll always have that pre-rendered, pre-authored entertainment,” Debevec said. “There’s a great deal of artistry required for really interesting plot twists and well-developed characters. These new tools really help democratize the process, and I’m thrilled to be part of that. I hope to  honor all of the history and help take it forward in a good way.” 

—Adapted from an article written by Hayley Hanway