UNCA students create a life-like, digital Abe Lincoln

From the press release:

Creating a Lifelike Virtual Lincoln
A rarely seen scar on Lincoln’s nose, perhaps inflicted by a river pirate’s knife, intrigues UNC Asheville student team as it recreates Honest Abe.

For Presidents Day, here are some questions about Abraham Lincoln we don’t usually think about:

1. How tall was Abraham Lincoln?

2. Did he always have a beard while in office?

3. What color were his eyes?

4. Did he have any noticeable facial scars?

To check your answers, you can look at the end of this article, or you could ask a small team of UNC Asheville students who have spent literally hundreds of hours researching and recreating Honest Abe for their undergraduate research project in New Media.

The five-person group, working under the direction of Assistant Professor Christopher Oakley and using photos, biographical information, and some life casts of Lincoln’s face and hands, are constructing a photorealistic digital version of our 16th president that will eventually come to life through animation.

“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 Studios. “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. When the students submitted their work, they realized that while each feature looked good independently, they didn’t 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 senior Taija Tevia-Clark, a member of the student team.

Lincoln 2.0
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.” The team is trying to approximate Lincoln’s features circa November 1863, the time of the Gettysburg Address.

Senior 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; junior David Schmeltekopf is creating the eyes and clothing; junior Ian Boyd is working on the body and animation system; senior 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 Lincoln’s head and beard.

The team’s research turned up the fact that Lincoln had a long scar on his nose that is rarely depicted. How he acquired the scar is unclear, but looking for the answer led the students to some intriguing episodes in 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, and decided it was important to create an accurate representation of the president. The scar stayed.

Moving Forward
The team has learned its lessons from the failed Game Lincoln version. “Now, when we meet, we make sure to put the pieces of Lincoln together on the screen,” says Oakley.

Every week, Tevia-Clark collects files from his fellow students and renders the head for group viewing and critique. The team uses Maya, a professional-grade software system, on Mac desktop computers. As more data is added to the Lincoln image – adding more colors and textures in the hair, beard, eyes and skin – 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 work with a CGI motion capture actor who could model movements for Lincoln. Or, the team could 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. 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.

Quiz Answers:
• He stood approximately 6 feet 4 inches tall.
• Technically, yes. Lincoln was clean-shaven when he first ran for office, but he grew his famous facial hair between the election and inauguration.
• Gray-blue
• Yes, he had one scar on his nose and one on the side of his chin.


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