New Media students remake the famous president in 3-D
Here's a quick quiz about one of our nation's most beloved presidents:
- How tall was Abraham Lincoln?
- Did he always have a beard while in office?
- What color were his eyes?
- Did he have any noticeable facial scars?
To check your answers, you can either scroll to the bottom of this page, or you could ask a small team of New Media students who have spent literally hundreds of hours researching and recreating Honest Abe for their undergraduate research project.
The five-person group, working under the direction of Assistant Professor Christopher Oakley, is constructing a photorealistic and animatable 3-D digital version of Lincoln based on photos, biographical information, and some life casts of the President's face and hands.
"This is something I've been waiting to do for 25 years," says Oakley, an avid Lincoln fan who used to work as a 3-D character animator for Disney. "Fortunately, these students were excited to jump in on it." Before this project, many of the students had never done this type of work, and only a few had practiced some basic 3-D modeling before.
The project began last semester when Oakley's students started working on President Lincoln Version 1.0. Using a 3-D wireframe that they sculpted digitally, each student set off to create their assigned facial features. Though they were working independently, the group would meet to troubleshoot roadblocks and get feedback.
Toward the end of the semester, they combined all their parts and found the results rather underwhelming. Oakley points out that since each feature had been created off of the main 3-D wireframe, they looked good independently, but they did not match as a whole. "We ended up calling that one Game Lincoln, because he looked good enough for a video game, but he wasn't good enough for what we wanted," said Taija Tevia-Clark, one of the undergraduate researchers working on the project.
With Game Lincoln shelved, Oakley and his students went back to the digital drawing board. "We 3-D scanned both the life casts to bring them into [the digital] world. But the problem is that one of them is missing the eyes. The other life cast has closed eyes, but it was made about a month before he was killed. Lincoln had aged so much by then." By combining the two casts and referring to photos of the president, the team is trying to approximate Lincoln's features circa November 1863, the time of the Gettysburg Address.
Joy McKemy is working on the beard and eyebrows; Tevia-Clark is working on the hair and acting as the technical director on the project; David Schmeltekopf is creating the eyes and clothing; Ian Boyd is working on the body and animation system; Christina Jones is working on the skin and lighting. Each student invests upwards of 20 hours or more per week on minute details like placing the pores on the skin and drawing individual lines that will control the hairs on his head and beard.
The team's research turned up the fact that Lincoln had a long scar on his nose that is rarely depicted. While it's unclear when he acquired the scar, that one subtle facial feature led the students to come upon some rather intriguing history of Lincoln's pre-presidential life. "I know he was kicked in the face by a horse, which knocked him out for quite some time," says Oakley. "And I know he got in a fight with some pirates while he was a raftsman on the Sangamon River. They had knives, and it didn't go well."
The team debated whether to include the oft-erased scar on Lincoln's nose, but they decided it was important to create an accurate representation of the president. The scar stayed.
Having learned the lessons of Game Lincoln, the team has reorganized the way it works. "Now, when we meet, we make sure to put the pieces of Lincoln together on the screen," says Oakley. "This way, we can see how he's coming together."
Every week, Tevia-Clark collects files from his fellow students and renders the head for group viewing and critique. Using Maya, a professional-grade software system, on Mac desktop computers, the rendering process took minutes at the beginning of the semester. As Lincoln head becomes more complex – acquiring more colors and textures in the hair, beard, eyes, skin, and lighting every week – the renderings take longer, already lasting more than an hour to complete. "We're using technology that was only introduced this year to the software," says Tevia-Clark.
On a recent Thursday afternoon session, the group discussed McKemy's progress on Lincoln's beard. She had recently switched away from the software's "hair" tool and tried drawing it using the "fur" tool, which more closely mimics the look and movement of a human beard. It still needed some work, but every little discovery brings the team closer to completion.
Once Lincoln's head and face are complete, the next phase is to attach the head to the body and eventually animate the character. Oakley hopes to eventually work with a CGI motion capture actor who could model movements for Lincoln, or the team may animate him by hand.
"By the time this project is done, he will deliver the Gettysburg Address. It may take another year, but he will do it," said Oakley, which begs the question: What did Lincoln sound like? "From accounts we've read, he had a rather high-pitched voice – it was kind of unpleasant. But it was helpful because he had to speak to large crowds, and they could hear him well."
Already, a few organizations – ranging from national libraries to the manufacturer of the team's 3-D scanner – are showing interest in the final product. As the students in this group move on and graduate, they will have this impressive project on their résumés. And the Virtual Lincoln may become a teaching tool that brings history back to life.
1. He stood approximately 6 feet 4 inches tall.
2. Technically, yes. Lincoln was clean-shaven when he first ran for office, but he grew his famous facial hair between the election and inauguration.
4. Yes, he had one scar on his nose and one on the side of his chin.