Benjamin Buttons: Crossing The Uncanny Valley In Style:                                         

"If we open the magic box of Studio Tools, and look inside...  We see that it's empty."   That's basically what Eric Barba, VFX Supervisor for 'The Curious Case of Benjamin Buttons,' said to me, while recruiting people for Hair Development on CCBB.  I sat and considered that we'd be doing this with as of yet, non-existent, untested, in-house software, under a tight schedule.   And all this with a Film Director that was known to strike fear in Hollywood Accountants & Production Grunts the world over-- the brilliant David Fincher, perfectionist extraordinaire.

"How many Hairstyles for this show are we talking about," I asked?  "Five," was the reply.  I figured if I multiplied by 3, it would probably be more realistic.  Meh.  15 different Hairstyles seemed completely doable.  "Sure, I would love to be on the team."

Little did I know...  

Once the Hair Team assembled, I moved from the Commercial Division to the Film side of the company and got settled in the "Stage".  Seated right behind me, starting into the back of my skull--  were 3 life sized Maquettes of Brad Pitt in large plexi-boxes.  They were said to be valued between $125,000 - $150,000 a piece.  Rick Baker & Kazhuhiro Tsuji sculpted and created heads for the 3 main stages of Brad's reverse aging process.  They were built using plastic, painted silicone, with glass eyes, and real human hair.  The hairs were punched in individually, and even shaved to simulate beard stubble.  They are truly impressive pieces of art.

Buttons Being Healed
My CCBB WorkStation
& Segway Garage
Buttons Being Healed

The 3 Heads of  Brad

We took a lot of styling cue's from these heads, and even departed intentionally, to further enhance the beginning stages of Brad's gradual transformation into his younger self.  The goal was to make his earliest moments on screen, appear unhealthy; as though he had been thru chemotherapy.  Hopefully he would not be so disturbing to look at, that audiences could still sympathize and emotionally bond with the character.

And this is the coolest and most painful part of the process:  telling a story thru Hairstyles.  As Buttons ages, more and more hair is applied.  As it starts to thicken, & hairlines slowly change, it begins to tangle more, then curl.  Maps were painted to match Mr. Pitt's actual beard growth patterns, and slowly, Buttons came of age.  

Literally, 100's of individual hairstyles were created for the film-- not only for the stage of life he was in, but also for the time of day in the shot, and what he was doing in each scene.  Good examples are when he missed the Trolley home, and his hat-hair is wet and plastered to his skin.  Another, is the the Bordello Hairstyle, which was my favorite.  The base age style was messed up, of course, but  the front has a subtle swoosh like Clark Kent (Superman) and the back has an ode to Alfalfa's cowlick, from 'The Little Rascals'.  The combination of feeling like a hero, mixed with the awkwardness of a kid-- just seemed to work really well here.

But to even get to that part of the styling process, Digital Domain needed to create artist-friendly software from scratch.  Maya's default hair system was deemed far too limiting for our specific needs.  So until those new tools were ready, I was manually shaping NURBS curves in Maya (CV by CV), to have "something to look at", for the execs and talented programmers writing the code to test with.  Eventually, much of my grunt work would become automated in an intelligent and aesthetically controlled way, using many of these same test curves.  It took many months of programmer's hours, but once the new hair system appeared, I was able to set up the basic maps & curves for most all of the show's hair needs:

Fincher likes long (almost disturbingly long) brows that really really old people who never trim, have.  As Buttons ages,
they were modified to blend into the real actor in makeup.

Hair & Many Style Variations:
Many, many styling variations, based on the 3 stages of our main age-regressed geometry, then combined with the actions
of the character in the script (Physical Age, Bathing, Sweating, Running, Sleeping, Hats, Haircuts, etc.).  A lot of those
variations became shot-specific, and were further art directed by my Sups or Fincher himself.

Nose Hair:
Fincher also loves lots of nose hairs.  These are the kinds of things that in real life, would typically get trimmed on set,
if they were so noticeable to the camera.  They're quite visible in the earlier stages of Brad's reverse aging process...

Ear Hair (Inner & outer):
Ah yes, Fincher even wanted unsightly ear hair added to the character, for added realism.  Ear Fuzz (Tiny Vellus Hairs)
were applied when shots required rim or back lighting, while he stayed in one position for a period of time.

Beard Stubble:
This is one of the more obvious ways to tell what's going on with Button's physiology as he "reverse matures", and takes
a fancy to young Ms. Daisy.  Lengths were changed depending when we thought he might have shaved and what time of
day it was, based on the script.

While the in-house software rapidly continued to evolve, we were able to add things to our Styles that suited Button's younger selves in more & more convincing, natural ways.  The three creepy heads were constantly used for this work, since their hair provided a real-world, baseline reference for all the little things that hair actually does.  Dynamics were also developed by the TD's, giving Button's Hair the ability to blend into his varied environments better, thru motion.

So yeah, we ended up doing way more than the 15 hairstyles I thought we were originally going to be involved with....  If there was a record for "Single CG Character with the most Hairstyles", it would have to be Benjamin Buttons.  But all this planning, hard work and attention to minute detail, is what helps keep him looking like a believable person, and not a lifeless, static effect with no warmth, or charm.   All the over 100+ Style variations were made to help support the illusion of Brad Pitt's soul, trapped inside the crusty old shell of 'young' Master Buttons.  And looking back, I'm glad we did them all.

Buttons Being Healed     Buttons Being Healed     Buttons Being Healed     Buttons Being Healed    Buttons Being Healed    Buttons Being Healed
Here are some stills of Buttons at different ages to look at.  For an old guy, he sure was pretty darn active...

Hair tells it's own story...  But it's also just digital-icing on the CG Cake, that is Benjamin Buttons.  So many new technologies were created, layered and refined for his breakthrough performances and sense of physical presence.  Many brilliant, talented people worked together to help bring this character to life, for audiences all around the world.  Imbuing believable life, humanity, or 'soul' into a single digital effect; is no easy thing.  So I feel very lucky to have played a very small part in crossing the Uncanny Valley with these awesome folks-- where so many before us, have tried and were less than successful.  But now that we've crossed that once impassible &  unforgiving terrain, I wonder what awaits us on this mostly unexplored side?  The doorway of convincing storytelling using Computer Graphics to represent a main performer, is now flung wide open.  Here's to the future evolution of digital effects.

My heartfelt thanks to everyone on the CCBB Production, & especially the entire Buttons Hair Team.

After all our dedication and perseverance on this challenging project, the film won 3 Oscars, plus many other awards.   My boss's Oscar was for Best Achievement in Visual Effects.

For More Information On BUTTONS:
Ed Ulbrich wonderfully & dramatically details
the "Secret Sauce" of the historic creation of
Button's in a TED Talk, calle

How Benjamin Buttons Got His Face.

It's a very compelling summary of the steps
taken to impart Mr. Pitt's performances into
a computer generated Benjamin Buttons.
Rowsby @ 2009 DD Oscar Party & Natasha (Awesome Production Manager)
2009 Production Oscar Party

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