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Ex-Apple guru Perlman sues major US studios over facial capture

After all of the CGI movies that have been made, it seems dumb and counter-intuitive that someone thinks they own any of the Intellectual Property in the techniques of how to create such special effects. But this week a company called Rearden has sued Paramount over how it created the latest Terminator movie – citing Copyright of the system’s output and of the trade name of the technology “Mova facial capture.”

Would you know it, behind the technologies in question there stands non-other than ex-Apple and Microsoft tech serial entrepreneur Steve Perlman. Perlman is attributed with various Apple designs, including QuickTime, as well as the intriguing PCell cellular technology licensed last year by Nokia, and the OnLive Cloud gaming company, which faltered and was eventually sold to Sony. He started WebTV which was acquired by Microsoft, and designed the Moxi Media Center. The invention he is now citing is the Mova Contour Facial Capture system.

We think the reason for attacking Paramount over copyright rather than patents, might be because this gives him, or his company Rearden, more power to ask courts to “pull” movies from distribution. They would be more inclined to remove that threat in a copyright case. In another legal action Perlman has called for Fox to pull the next Deadpool movie, the next Night at the Museum movie and the next Fantastic Four movie. The Paramount suit filed this week is against Terminator: Genisys and another suit wants to get Crystal Dynamics to pull an Xbox game called Rise of the Tomb Raider.

The claim is straight forward. The idea of avatars has been around for years, since well before Mova was invented. And there have been a variety of attempts to make them lifelike, many of which focus on getting them to emulate the expressions of a human by capturing the movements of the human face. We first came across the idea in the first Hulk movie in 2003. But it looks like the skin tone, veins, muscles rippling below the surface are all a bit inadequate for modern movies.

Interestingly a similar technology, though not as detailed was used in that 2003 Hulk movie, but it only followed the movements of the entire body and a few of the major points of the face. The rest had to be rendered in CGI. What Perlman came up with was a way of capturing a granular mesh of data points from all over the face at a sub-millimeter level of detail, and Hollywood was happy to pay for the improved technology. At least at first.

But when Paramount, who he had worked with before started on the new Terminator movie it had to pit an older today version of Arnold Schwarzenegger, against the one in the first movie in 1984, a 37 year old Arnold Schwarzenegger. To do that the facial characteristics had to be spot on, and aging had to be turned backwards on the skin.

Perlman argues that Mova was the only way to do this and yet Paramount says it wasn’t used. Instead the technology was either copied or the outputs of Mova were copied, and Rearden was paid nothing for the technology. The suit says Paramount, or agents of Paramount, must have stolen the technology.

What the courts will have to decide, if it ever gets that far, is whether or not this idea is obvious and a natural extension of laser radar scanning systems which have been used to do things like make precise building replicas or even replicas to sub-millimeter distances of such things as Cuneiform tablets with ancient writing on them for students to study. Virtual Reality has been playing with many variations of this technology for 25 years.

Laser scans are used to make radar based 3D digital models quickly which are accurate to within 1 millimeter or less. The output is referred to as a ‘cloud of points’ and these dense storage elements can then be transformed into any other digital representation ‘ such as the polygons used in VR rendering. And this is before Perlman entered the business.

It seems that Perlman is fated, a poor businessman, trapped in a great engineer’s body and with little appreciation of legal statutes, and his exit from OnLive was ignominious and employees never bemoaned the fact, which perhaps speaks to his management style. And on that basis alone, and the idea that he has plenty of money and many, many projects to work on, we think this threat to the current crop of movies will not result in them being pulled from their theatrical schedules and either a rapid, and not too expensive settlement will be entered into, or these suits will be resisted to the point where Perlman loses interest.

Rearden has accused James Cameron’s Digital Domain special effects firm of industrial espionage in the past, despite the fact it has been around longer than Rearden and has a similar heritage. Digital Domain is in the process of trying to remove an injunction at United States Court of Appeals, brought by Rearden.

This dispute threatens to re-raise the debate about whether or not an actor owns his own expressions or not, or whether they can become a studios’ copyright, whereby someone else can play a particular actor without the original actor being paid, and have the original face overlaid in the new, very cheap actor. In a world where characters are increasingly not driven by a single actor and movies are international, using actors who are less expensive than using entirely US actors (take HBOs Game of Thrones), this means that debate is years away from needing resolution.

But if the technology by which this can be done can be co-opted by a single company, and no-one else is allowed to do anything similar, then it will in effect make special effects movies a monopoly and we’re not sure anyone is going to put up with that.

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