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Reflections on Synthetic Actors Through 25 Years of SIGGRAPH

by Carl Machover

Synthetic actors have been an especially hot topic lately, particularly since the release of "Titanic". What they did was unique, unlike some previous use of synthetic actors. For instance, in "Forrest Gump", a computer-generated image was used and then cut and pasted over and over again to create the illusion of a crowd. Digital Domain, however modeled individuals on the deck of the "Titanic" and let emergent behaviors come forth.

Every year at SIGGRAPH, we see new techniques and hardware for motion capture. However, I think synthetic actors are going to move beyond that when some entrepreneur develops a method to analytically model behavior.

There are two reasons why synthetic actors are used: it's cheaper and safer. It's cheaper when the director needs a crowd scene, or a bunch of digital extras. And in terms of stunts and effects, synthetic actors can survive any car crash or explosion; you can blow up all of New York City if you need to. But I don't see synthetic actors replacing real human performers. Like all new technology, the computer will move in, and the roles of machines and people will shift. The technology will rattle around for a while, but eventually both the people and the machines will settle into their niches, doing what each does best.