How Studio Macbeth Brought History to Life in Maya

Having opened his New York company, Studio Macbeth, in 1979, illustrator and animator Ray Downing has long been fascinated by the potential of digital imaging. But he’s not fascinated by the usual Hollywood VFX blockbuster, which he sees as a decidedly limited implementation of CG technology. Downing’s been exploring the frontiers of CG since the late 1980s, when Studio Macbeth standardized on a still-young 3D program that was then known as Alias. Studio Macbeth specializes in scientific, pharmaceutical and medical imaging – its work is widely visible in TV commercials and other advertising and promotional materials – but Downing, who already had an interest in the life of Abraham Lincoln, thought it might be possible to use CG technology to bring that kind of historical figure to cinematic life. Last October, armed with research by physician John G. Sotos – whose book The Physical Lincoln exhaustively examines Lincoln’s physical characteristics and concludes that he suffered from a rare form of cancer – Downing got to work.

A pet project started in the studio’s off-hours turned into a paid gig when The History Channel licensed some of Studio Macbeth’s painstakingly recreated imagery – both movie clips and stills, created using Autodesk Maya and Pixologic ZBrush – for a show to air February 16, Stealing Lincoln’s Body. Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer has described the footage approvingly as “an uncanny, believable, realistic, living Lincoln.” Downing is already working on a similar, follow-up project dealing with a different historical figure – he can’t spill the beans, but says he expects it to make a splash. Watch the embedded YouTube clips to see some samples of the work, then read the Q&A to learn more about the Abraham Lincoln project.

FILM & VIDEO: How did you get involved with the Abraham Lincoln project for The History Channel? Did you have a background of work with them?

Ray Downing: No. I’ve always been interested in portraiture, and it’s one of those things that we never get asked to do. At the same time, I see the same movies that everyone else does. I got the feeling that the technology of 3D computer graphics is much more interesting than what’s done with it. In other words, how many more cartoons with superheroes and monsters do you really want to see? The technology outshines the subject. We wanted to stretch our arms and do something in portraiture. It occurred to us that, well, they’ve never taken an historic figure and brought him back to life. They’ve been concentrating on Spider-Man, but this is a natural thing. How well could we do it? Could we do it well enough to convince someone that they were seeing that person alive again?

It became an in-house pet project that we worked on between other jobs. Finally, someone told us that the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln was coming up. We started producing stills and eventually video animations of the figure. Once we had some of that done we sent a sample over to The History Channel, and it was a home run. They said, “We’re doing a show on Lincoln and you have to be a part of it.” We wound up selling licenses for some of those clips to them.

So you knew there was a historical anniversary coming up –

No, I actually didn’t! It was a surprise. I just always thought Lincoln was a unique character. Whenever you look at these actors, you’ve got two things going on. You’ve got the actor, and you’ve got Lincoln. And nobody actually looks like Lincoln himself. So I thought, “Let’s let Lincoln play Lincoln and see if we can pull it off.”

There have been a lot of recent invocations of Abraham Lincoln because of the Presidential inauguration.

Politicians love to align themselves with Lincoln. He has a reputation of being honest and all of that – and certainly in a dramatic period of American history. And, let’s face it, a majority of politicians are lawyers that don’t have very impressive backgrounds of accomplishments. Legitimacy is cast by the shadow of Lincoln. But Lincoln is Lincoln, and everybody else is who they are. It was a different world, and you really can’t compare the two.

Where did you start? Did you do research to find out what source materials, like photographs, were available?

Well, I knew a lot about Lincoln to begin with. I was aware that there were two existing life masks. He had casts made of his face twice. The first was in 1860, right before he assumed public office, without a beard. That was cast by a sculptor named [Leonard] Volk. And three months before the assassination he had another cast of his face done by a sculptor called [Clark] Mills. So there are two existing life masks of Lincoln taken four or five years apart.

What’s wrong with the life masks is, number one, they don’t match each other. Lincoln’s face changed enormously in that amount of time. It doesn’t even look like the bone structure is the same. In addition to that, neither one of them has the eyes and neither one of them has the neck. One of them has, sort of, the back of the head, but there are pieces missing. They’re a good starting place, but after that you have to pose him and compare him to pictures that were taken – and then remove everything that ain’t Lincoln.

How did you get access to the life masks?

We actually bought copies of them online, plaster casts.

And did you start by scanning them?

Yes, we did cyber-scans of them. It’s very dense geometry, and you can’t animate them because the directional reality of the geometry is all wrong. So we made a combination of the two masks, brought it into ZBrush, and applied the geometry and started making it animatable.

That’s gotta be a challenge, because you have to extrapolate musculature from a surface.

And also, these masks don’t match each other. We had to make decisions about what Lincoln we were going to depict. We put him in the middle of his presidency. He has a beard. If we were going to go further with this, we would have made several models to represent him beardless and with different haircuts as he got older. Right before his assassination, he was probably dying of cancer. He probably had six months left to live, and his face really reflected that. You would really need a morphable series of portraits of him if you wanted to cover it in detail.

How did you proceed? Did you wait to get the model of the face and head right before you went further?

Absolutely. You get the modeling so it looks like Lincoln, then make it light enough in terms of geometry to do something with it as well as getting your orientation of the geometry correct for the muscular structures.

Were there a lot of photographs available for reference?

There are 130 different photographs of Lincoln shot by 31 different photographers.

Was that adequate?

Oh, yeah. The problem is the lenses of the time were very different than the compound lenses you have now. Lincoln had a very pronounced nose, but in a lot of these pictures he seems to have a very small nose. He looks better in the photography than he actually did. The other thing with Abraham Lincoln is that his face was completely asymmetrical. The right and left half of his face look like they’re coming from two different people. They don’t match. In the photography, people are preferring to shoot him from his better side, which is his right side. They’ll change the part on his hair. There are all these kinds of things going on, as well as the lens distortion. The very long lenses subdue his nose and subdue his ears, and creates an illusion of a better face than he actually had.

How long did it take to get the face?

It was probably six or seven months before we did the first renders.

Was it a trial-and-error process?

Yes. We’d take a series of photographs and put the model at that same angle and say, OK, where are we good? What looks the same? What differs? Once that was done we moved on the problem of skin texturing, and doing the hair and the beard. Making it look like, when you look into his eyes, that there’s a person there. There’s a sentient being underlying the geometry. That’s the most difficult thing to do ‘ to get the soul into the character.

Did you use photographic reference for the eyes?

They’re completely synthetic. They’re built like regular eyes, with lenses and corneas and a pupil. They worked very well.

Can you talk about the procedure for creating the moving, full-body figure of Lincoln?

We did hire an actor and rehearse an actor on how Lincoln moved. All of that is documented in The Physical Lincoln. It’s documentation from the time by people who actually saw Lincoln and made notes of his mannerisms. We used that for a guide for how he walked and how he moved. Nobody is proportioned like Lincoln. Nobody moves like Lincoln. We keyframed the geometry by hand to match what the actor was doing.

It wasn’t motion capture. Were you working side-by-side with images of the actor?

We would actually work on top of them. Lincoln’s proportions were wrong, so we’d have to restore the background to get rid of any semblance of the actor.

Did you consider doing motion-capture?

No. If you were going to build one automobile, would you build a factory first and then build that single car? We weren’t going to do hours of animation. We were just going to do some clips as an experiment to prove the point that this is a good area for exploration. It was simpler for us and less expensive to keyframe everything than go through motion capture.

Do you feel like you crossed the uncanny valley?

I would hope so. We haven’t seen any criticism saying it doesn’t look human. People are buying it. We saw one review of the other day where someone described a scene that was CG and they didn’t know it. It was Lincoln lying in state in the coffin in New York’s City Hall – a very revealing image of that one shot of Lincoln in death – and it was CG, not the real shot, and they didn’t know it.

Why was that shot CG?

Stanton, who was the secretary of war at the time, had ordered that there be no photography of Lincoln in death. New York being New York, there was a photographer there. He got up into the balcony at City Hall and shot a picture of Lincoln lying in state. When Stanton found out, he ordered all the plates destroyed. Lincoln’s head is very small in that photograph, smudgy and very light. You can’t see a lot of features – you can barely make out his goatee. There’s not a lot of information there. We substituted Lincoln, in an artificial coffin, into that context so that the opposite of what you expect happened. If you pull in tighter and tighter on a photograph, eventually you run out of information. But in our shot, the closer you get, the more information you see. It’s all included in the model, and the model doesn’t run out of information. We did it for the surprise factor. Somehow, this reviewer thought that was a really, really cool picture that we could go very tight on.

Did your specific experience in scientific imaging give you insight that helped with this?

Absolutely. The most helpful thing is patience. People talk about talent and use all these buzzwords, but it’s seat time. You sit there until you get it right. Groucho Marx had a line that was fabulous. He said something like, “I do some of my best work sitting down. That’s where I shine. That’s not a reflection on me, it’s a reflection on my pants.” It has to do with sitting there and doing it until it’s right, whatever that takes.


Ray Downing, animator
Phil Rivera, animator
Andrew McTiernan, project coordinator
Chad Smith, editor
Maria Downing, editor
Fritz Klein, Lincoln body double