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Big tech snags Hollywood talent to pursue enhanced reality

  • From ‘Star Wars’ to Animoji, visual effects gurus create digital worlds meant to advance computing

Silicon Valley’s biggest companies are snapping up the people and technology behind some of Hollywood’s blockbusters in an effort to improve their augmented- and virtual-reality offerings.

Alphabet Inc.’s Google, Facebook Inc. and Apple Inc. are among the tech giants that in recent years have been both luring visual artists away from Hollywood and acquiring technology first used to create digital effects for blockbusters like “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story" and “Avatar."

While VR is almost completely immersive, AR superimposes images onto the real world. Apple, Google, Facebook, Microsoft Corp. and others are developing special glasses or headsets for these applications, also called extended reality.

Silicon Valley’s recruitment of artists and engineers who built some of Hollywood’s most memorable digital effects reflects the view that mass-user adoption of AR and VR platforms depends on creating lifelike experiences. Populating the platforms with realistic computer-generated characters and scenery, similar to what is found in movies or videogames, is central to that effort.

In recent years, former visual effects professionals have traded careers working for top Hollywood firms like Industrial Light & Magic (whose credits include the Star Wars films), Digital Domain (Marvel) and Weta Digital (“Lord of the Rings," “Jumanji: The Next Level") in favor of often higher-paying gigs at tech companies developing AR and VR applications and hardware.

“It’s harder to make as much money working in visual effects," said Paul Debevec, a veteran of the visual-effects industry who is now a professor at the University of Southern California. About 4½ years ago Google hired Mr. Debevec, an award-winning pioneer in the creation of convincing digital humans, to help the company advance extended reality.

“A lot of the most talented individuals that I’ve met through the visual effects industry find their way into the tech industry," he said. Three of Mr. Debevec’s team joined him at Google.

Working in visual effects in film and TV can mean long, unpredictable hours, limited compensation, poor job security and paltry benefits—many call it the “cool tax" one pays for the pleasure of working in Hollywood. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley has been pouring billions of dollars into extended-reality technology. The disparity between the two industries has created an abundance of attractive jobs that some fed-up visual effects professionals find hard to turn down.

“The difference is, in tech, you are broadly treated more like a human being," said one veteran visual effects artist who, like many of his peers, recently left Hollywood for a job in technology. He now works developing AR platforms for one the world’s largest tech companies.

Harvard Business School professor emeritus Shoshana Zuboff calls the Hollywood to Silicon Valley migration “the latest illustration of how tech empires are able to corner critical intellectual labor." She likens the shift to what has happened in the field of artificial intelligence, as major technology companies persuade scientists to leave government or university jobs.

Hollywood’s visual effects industry has struggled in recent years. Even as its work has become ubiquitous in film and television, falling prices have made it increasingly difficult to turn a profit, and compensation for workers has suffered.

The reverse has been true in AR and VR. Consulting company Accenture PLC said last year it projects company spending in the immersive technologies to grow to $121 billion by 2023 from $21 billion in 2020.

“Our smartphone world has become so laden, so rich. We spend so much time looking down into this screen, there’s very little more we can do with that," says early VR developer Mark Pesce. “The next [thing] is to turn the world into the screen…that is what AR offers."

In recent years tech companies have leaned on the expertise of visual-effects professionals as they seek to create lifelike digital objects and characters.

“If you put on an AR or VR headset, you’re going to look at stuff," said Mr. Debevec. “One of the most important things you’re going to see are people."

While heading the USC Institute for Creative Technologies, Mr. Debevec and others designed what many in visual effects consider the most sophisticated device for capturing digital scans of humans that can then be animated later.

The Light Stage, as the device is known, is a nine-foot diameter spherical device with 14,000 lights and more than 40 cameras. It has played a key role in creating some of cinema’s most celebrated digital facsimiles of actors, such as Brad Pitt in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Will Smith for “Gemini Man" and even a deceased Paul Walker for “Furious 7."

In 2017, Google built its own, bigger Light Stage, capable of capturing not just a person’s head, but the entire human form. With Mr. Debevec’s help, the company is using the device, in part, to try to create thoroughly convincing digital humans for AR and VR platforms.

Hao Li, another former head of the USC lab—who got into visual effects because he wanted to “fool an audience, in a good way"—has also had technology he co-developed to improve the production of digital characters for Hollywood acquired by Silicon Valley.

Apple bought facial-tracking technology developed by Mr. Li and colleagues and used it as the basis for its Animoji, which allows users to meld their own facial expressions with animated creatures. Some of his collaborators on the project started working at Apple shortly after the sale.

This story has been published from a wire agency feed without modifications to the text

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