Movies such as "Beowulf" in which computer-animated versions of actors come alive in fantasy worlds entail hours of painstaking labor.

In most cases, actors attach dozens of reflective tiny plastic balls on their faces or wear phosphorous paint so that infrared cameras can track their expressions in what's called "motion capture." In traditional animation, an army of artists draws each frame by hand.

Technology from Santa Monica-based Image Metrics Inc. simplifies the process. All that's necessary to create computer-generated images is a streaming video of the actor's face. The computer sees a face and does a direct translation of its expressions into a 3-D model.

In its earlier form, the software was used to identify faces in security camera footage, cross-referencing it with mug shots of criminals. The five-year-old proprietary technology is a brainchild of five Ph.D. researchers at Manchester University in the United Kingdom.

Two years ago, when the company moved to Santa Monica to target Hollywood and the video game industry, they brought the first software that uses artificial intelligence to create facial animation.

"The ability to capture subtle nuances of facial expressions is something I haven't seen in any other technique," said Jeff Kleiser, a longtime visual effects supervisor for movies such as "X-Men: The Last Stand" and "Scary Movie 4." "It actually analyzes the face intelligently to determine what's going on with the facial muscles and applies that to a computer-generated face."

Image Metric's software is behind characters in films such as "Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix" and "Foodfight!" It was also used to do facial animations in Rock Star Games' "Grand Theft Auto" video game series.

Eyes, lips, tongue

Image Metric's software captures the movements of eyes, lips and even the tongue. Other software doesn't do so because markers, such as reflective plastic balls or phosphorus paint, cannot be applied to those parts of the face. Animators hand-draw those features in later.

Image Metrics automates this process, which saves studios days of labor. For example, the company can produce one minute of finished animation a day, compared with about a week for most studios using other technology, said Kelvin Duckett, chief operating officer of Image Metrics.

According to one studio, this would add up to about $4 million in savings, Duckett said.

The software consists of thousands of databases with information on every muscle that moves a human face. It can also recognize and differentiate one face from another.

"One of the hardest things in the world to recognize is a human face, because each face has essentially the same basic features. But faces themselves are completely different," said Duckett. "The computer knows exactly what your face may look like when it's angry. But when you smile, it may not recognize you anymore."

Its patented software can read any facial expressions captured on a video. It is then transposed to a computer-generated character that looks just like the real person, or to any other character.

"This means you can take old footage of Marilyn Monroe and create a Shrek character, for example," said digital medial analyst Wanda Meloni of M2 Research. "This is fascinating."

In one commercial, Image Metrics took facial expressions of actors talking about an insurance product and transposed it to footage of Fred and Ethel in "I Love Lucy."

"We're literally bringing dead actors to life," Duckett said.

Or in some cases, a familiar brand.

Sun-Maid is testing Image Metric's software to transpose an actor's facial expressions on the computer-animated Sun-Maid Raisin girl on the company Web site.

"Companies normally don't have a budget for computer-generated characters," said Kleiser, who is leading the Sun-Maid project. "But Image Metrics can make the Sun-Maid Raisin girl come to life pretty easily."

Located near Third Street Promenade, the office is bustling with young film school graduates. Nearly all the employees are entry level. Because the technology is so sophisticated, Duckett said, it essentially needs to be "babysat" and does not require intensive oversight save a few production supervisors. This is also how Image Metrics curbs its expenditures.

For a full-length film, the company charges the market rate of up to $70 a second, said Patrick Davenport, executive producer of Image Metrics. But clients end up saving money on the back-end due to the abbreviated project completion time.

The company is in talks with the Defense Department for security applications. It is also in discussions with search engine companies to adapt its software to use in copyright research.

"It boils down to teaching the computer to see," Duckett said.

Image Metrics Inc.

Year Founded: 2001
Core Business: Facial animation software and production services
Employees in 2006: 30
Employees in 2007: 45
Goal: To set the standard for facial animation software used for films, videogames, TV and the Internet
Driving Force: The need for more sophisticated and less labor-intensive technology for realistic visual effects and 3-D imaging in films and video games

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