A woman tries on a mask from the film Avatar
A woman tries on a mask from the film Avatar

Computer-generated characters in the films and computer games of the future will be so realistic that individual hair follicles and skin cells will be visible through new high definition digital effects technology, experts claim.

Several blockbuster films, including Beowulf and Avatar, have blurred the line between digital animation and reality by basing animated characters on the movements of real actors.

Researchers at the University of Southern California (USC) and Imperial College London have developed a scanner that allows them to record centimetre-long patches of a person's face in such high definition that a single cell covers three pixels on the screen, making "plastic looking" characters a thing of the past.

The scanner picks up not just light reflected from the skin but also light that penetrates the surface and is thrown back, giving much greater depth and lustre to an image, and has the capability to capture how the skin reacts to different light conditions and facial expressions.

The scanned patches of skin are then transferred on to a 3D image of the actor created with motion capture photography.

"The bumpiness of the surface of the skin, at the micron scale, actually effects how light reflects off the surface," Professor Paul Debevec, associate director of graphics research at USC told the Times.

"That's what makes it look healthy or oily or pasty or chalky. It makes someone look like a human being made out of organic material and not like a computer generated zombie."

Currently, adding realistic skin blemishes and creases has to be done by hand by digital effects technicians and is a laborious, time-consuming and expensive process.

The new technology will make the process less expensive, and games developers at Activision have created a program that mimics many of the effects of the high-definition technology, without a scan having to be done for each character, further reducing the need for time and manpower.

It paves the way for a new generation of hyper-realistic computer generated film and computer game characters and even entire scenes.

Professor Debevec said: "In the future it might be the less expensive movies that use CGI technology, while big budget movies will be the only ones who can still afford to go out on a location and shoot in Paris or Bermuda and take up actors' time."