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Chris Crawford's face technology, open to indies
by Chris Crawford on 01/06/14 02:52:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Fifteen years ago, while designing the Erasmatron, I built a Face Editor that permitted authors to create character faces. The central feature of this editor was its ability to put any static facial expression onto the face of any character. We had a library of ~100 facial expressions. It was really great for 1997, but is a 2D system, not 3D, and the results are nowhere near as photo-realistic as modern stuff. On the other hand, they are STILL more emotionally expressive than anything I've seen in commercial products. 

It occurs to me that this technology might be of some value to indie developers. The original code is in C++ for the Mac. I suggest that it would be possible to rewrite this code as a library for use by indie developers. I can't do that work myself, but I'd be willing to make the source code available for a team willing to do the task.

You can see a brief characterization of the system here:

Is anybody interested in building a second generation of this technology?

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Rakib Solewalker
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It's really cool :D

Doctor Ludos
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Very impressive technology!

I'd like to see adventures games or MMO using such an advanced system!

Chris Crawford
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Would either of you like to participate in an effort to make it available to everybody?

Chad Wagner
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This is the current state of the art for facial animation:

They use video facial performance capture (without dots), and very clever algorithms to produce a real time mesh. Now that's certainly out of range for an update of these algorithms - but it would be nice to see a more rudimentary (even cartoony) 3D rendering capability.

I would like to participate in an effort to update this work, certainly in stages.

Chris Crawford
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Thanks for that link, Chad. It is indeed very impressive. My concern with these approaches is that they emphasize photorealism, which is fine for photos, but not so good for entertainment. Here is an essay I wrote that explains the issue:

Our goal is artistic expression, not photorealism, and for that we need to take full advantage of the lessons learned by artists over the centuries. Look at any of the animated films of the last fifteen years; see how they distort both the human face and its expressions in order to be MORE expressive. That is precisely what I would like to accomplish with this. The technology I built is primitive, but I think it can be improved on considerably without forcing us into the complexities of 3D.

Let's see of we can put a team together. Please contact me using the contact form on my website (

Saul Gonzalez
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Very cool tech! But I think it would work better with a simpler / more-stylized cartoon style that what is shown in the linked samples.

Chris Crawford
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Yes, I think it should move more towards a free artistic style than make any attempt to be realistic. It need be realistic only to the extent that the user can instantly make out the emotion being expressed. I think of images from "Calvin and Hobbes" as ideal.

Kevin Fishburne
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My web site is down, but here is a video of a facial composition procedure I made a while back. It's 2D and uses separate overlays for head, hair, eyes, nose and mouth. There aren't too many image variations in the demo, but each was extracted from front-facing photos of real people:

This is an image from TFA's web site:

If this was combined with TFA's facial animation tools it would look pretty damn crazy... 2D's creepy answer to 3D's uncanny valley as in the Nvidia example in an above comment. I think it would be great, and could even be used as a texture on a simple 3D head to good effect.

Chris Crawford
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I'm very impressed with the blending algorithms you developed to merge various portions of the face; the results are impressive. I myself want to move in a different direction: towards the artistic representation of the human face. Perhaps the best way to characterize the distinction is to make reference to Scott McCloud's classic triangle of faces in his classic book "Understanding Comics" (which EVERYBODY in the games biz should read). You can see the triangle here:

Look at the stuff that's furthest away from the "reality" vertex of the triangle. THAT'S what I think we need.

David Keyworth
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Man, I wish so many more AAA developers understood this kind of focus. I see games like L.A. Noire, which use such super-advanced high-budget facial animation systems...and it ends up being far more of a waste emotionally than anyone is willing to admit. I'm pretty sure everyone will agree about The Walking Dead having a far greater emotional payoff due to the just-slightly-cartoony, large-eye appearance of its characters; and initially, people were complaining that it wouldn't look "realistic" enough!
I keep getting the sense there's some technical restraint or design decision that prevents developers from doing things more similar to this tool; or to the way Half-Life 2 did it - with a simple set of facial controls that can be very easily exaggerated for the mood in question. It becomes really depressing when any NPCs outside of the main cast aren't even given moving lips, and the camera just covertly points away from them anytime they're talking, or shoehorns reasons for everyone to wear a mask. This *shouldn't* even be a huge budget-sink to spend time on, and even then, it wouldn't be the worst use of the money - it's definitely noticeable to players.

If my low-level DX/OGL C++ skills were a bit more on-par, I'd really like to work on a system like this in my spare time, but I think at the moment I'm not really the right person for the task. Certainly gives me something to aim for, though.