Monday, 6 August 2018

Oscar-winner from Pune feels gaming is the future

6/8/2018

PUNE: Dr Manhattan from Zack Snyder’s ‘Watchmen’, the CGI-heavy baddies from the Spider-Man series, the entire cast of heavyweights from Robert Zemeckis’s ‘Beowulf’ have the trailblazing know-how of Pune’s Parag Havaldar in common. Havaldar, a student of St Vincent’s High School in Camp, helped develop the expression-based facial performance capture technology. “What we tried to accomplish with Beowulf was ahead of its time,” he told pune-news.com during a visit to Pune.

“Zemeckis is a visionary director. He was clear that he wanted only performances. His idea was, ‘Why don’t we just capture the actors and get the emotions out? Everything else -clothing, make-up or lighting - can be done in post-production,” Havaldar added. Beowulf was filmed in three weeks with the actors performing with sensors on their bodies. Post-production took a lot longer and was more controlled, Havaldar added. In comparison, most other films are shot over several months.

The impact of the technology which was nascent then can be felt in every other film, especially in superhero capers. For all his efforts, Havaldar received an Academy Award in 2017. His family moved to Zambia when he was four and stayed there for seven years. Upon his return, he joined St Vincent’s, where he forged a lifetime of memories. “I recall cycling with many of my friends. But what really stood out were my struggles with Marathi,” was Havaldar’s amused confession. “I was fluent in three Bantu (African) languages, but I couldn’t write or read Marathi. I failed the subject often,” he said, adding that his friends bailed him out.

He finished school in 1987 and went to study at IIT-Kharagpur and graduated in 1991. He finished his PhD in computer graphics and computer vision in 1996 from the University of Southern California and became a part-time faculty there. Talk inevitably turned to his Academy Award. He was recognized for his work in pioneering and establishing expression-based facial performance capture technology.

“I was pleased, surprised, humbled and honoured to get the Oscar. It was a culmination of eight years of hard work,” Havaldar said. Each year, the Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences explores technologies that have had a wide-reaching impact on film making. Last year, after thorough research, investigation, and evaluation, they recognized the man responsible for a tectonic shift in modern film making. It is process that involves experts from the industry, researches and professors in the field.

“I had moved away from films; I was working in the game industry for (Activision’s) Blizzard Entertainment, when I received the call,” he said. Havaldar has strong roots in Pune where his parents and his wife’s family live. “I visit Pune every other year, but this is my first visit after five years,” he said. Which makes it the first time Pune’s first - and only - Oscar winner has come home since that momentous night in 2017.

At the moment, when Parag is not shaping young minds at USC, he is spearheading R&D at Blizzard. “The future lies in gaming, the trajectory of technology is more exciting. It’s about interacting with digital actors and game cinematics. The industry will move away from the current gaming format,” he said, while admitting that he will never say never on returning to films.

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