Why VFX Companies Want to Craft Your Hyper-Real Avatar for the Metaverse

·12-min read

If you saw the viral music video for Paul McCartney’s “Find My Way,” which features the 79-year-old rocker digitally de-aged to look like he’s 20, you may have figured out that’s not really the rock legend dancing.

But unlike a digitally de-aged performer you might see in a Marvel movie or Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman,” McCartney owns the rights to the virtual version of himself reimagining his Beatles-era youth. And if he wanted to, he could take that youthful image and use it elsewhere. In fact, he could use it anywhere the metaverse might one day allow him to explore.

The image of McCartney put through the fountain of youth was made by a company called Hyperreal, a VFX company that scanned McCartney to create a hyper-realistic looking model — or what the company calls a “hypermodel” — for use in virtual or other digital experiences, from music videos to video games to films.

Hyperreal’s McCartney video is one example of how VFX companies are forging into the future of the metaverse — also known as part of Web3, or the interconnected virtual online network that has become a tech buzzword for every futuristic thing you can imagine. And if and when those things become available, McCartney can take his hypermodel there without restriction — because he owns it.

“When you think about it, they are the only ones that should own it. Why not empower the creators and talent with their high-end digital asset?” Remington Scott, Hyperreal’s CEO, told TheWrap. “And we know that digital assets have a value because of the NFT explosion. Why not give talent an asset that they have the rights to and they can then use across any metaverse opportunity?”

There are other companies seeking to reboot the youthful appearance of stars and lesser-known creators alike. Genies, which recently lured former Disney CEO Bob Iger to join its board, creates virtual, customizable avatars and fashion lines that exploit an individual’s “digital DNA.” Think of it as a “living NFT,” or an NFT 2.0, a unique digital asset that goes above and beyond a static image or online token. Whether you’re McCartney or the average consumer, your digital likeness has value, and both Genies and Hyperreal believe you’ll want to ensure that it can stay current and secure no matter where the technology takes us.

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A metaverse built on people

Time and again, A-list stars who appear in special effects-heavy films go under the digital knife. VFX companies will scan an individual’s face multiple times a year, Scott said, in a process that can be time-consuming and costly. But all those effects and creations typically fall under the umbrella of a single project, and producers or creators can’t use that digital data again on a different project because they don’t have the rights to the visual assets.

“Talent would start to say to me, ‘Here we are again! We’re going to keep doing this several times a year,’” Scott said. “Like, when am I going to own this?’”

Hyperreal saw an opportunity to build hyper-realistic digital hypermodels (the company shies away from the term “avatar” that generally evokes something more cartoonish) for high-end, premier talent, but not just so that it can be used in a standalone project.

Instead of designing a virtual McCartney for a music video, another for a video game and a third version for a movie, the dream of an interoperable metaverse would allow one hypermodel to be used again and again across any online ecosystem. What’s more, Hyperreal can design these models to be an exact digital double — or a “Gemini” — of the talent as they are today, a model that’s been de-aged to resemble the star at a moment in time that’s considered “timeless” — or a “Fountain” — and even can work with estates on the “Phoenix,” creating models based on deceased talent, even with very little source data.

While Hyperreal can’t share many details about its current projects for the very reason that it doesn’t own the rights to them, the company has also worked with pop star Madison Beer on a virtual reality concert series, with the estate of The Notorious B.I.G. using his likeness in a video game and with “American Idol” producer Simon Fuller to create ALTA B, a pop singer who’s quite literally a digital human.

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“They want to know initially, what is my hypermodel going to do, where is it going to perform? And we have to be able to explain all the opportunities from branding, commercials, concerts, appearances, immersive and any of those opportunities is where talent might want to explore,” Scott said. “It gives them the ability to try things that they’ve not had the opportunity to before, and we’re finding this is an exciting moment, because it allows them to connect in a different way with their fans and grow that fan base as well.”

Genies sees a similar opportunity. While Hyperreal currently caters to high-end clientele, Genies wants to democratize the metaverse and hand over its digital creation tools to creators and consumers to explore on their own. People who use Genies’ tools can create more than just an avatar but also their own complete “avatar ecosystems.”

Influencers, celebrities and other users who partner with Genies can gain access to the company’s early tools and can play around in The Warehouse, Genies’ virtual marketplace to customize their avatar. Once in The Warehouse, people can develop entire fashion lines and art styles full of wearable accessories that become part of their avatar, or they can develop their own species that can be tweaked and modeled to their liking.

These accessories and looks are effectively sold as NFTs, unique digital tokens processed through the blockchain so that they’re distinct to an avatar’s personal brand and can’t be duplicated. And because Genies’ users own what they create, they have the freedom to evolve their creation’s look over time and use it in whatever venue they want. Anyone who buys or trades within The Warehouse has the same tools available to them to remix, resell and put their own spin on the virtual products that others are creating.

In April, Genies announced a Series C to raise $150 million at a valuation of $1 billion, though it’s unclear how many users the company has within its Warehouse at present.

“When you talk about the metaverse, those spaces will largely be built on people. And we’re focused on empowering people to have the tools to be able to do so and tap into that entrepreneurial creativity that everyone has,” Jake Becker, the head of talent relations with Genies, said. “The way we’re building these tools or how I see it, we’ll see the next Justin Bieber, Marc Jacobs, Evan Spiegel or Walt Disney come from using these tools.”

Bob Iger Genies Akash Nigam
Bob Iger (far left) with Genies CEO Akash Nigam alongside Iger’s virtual avatar Genie (Courtesy of Genies)

Not unlike Hyperreal, the dream is that no matter what you create using Genies’ virtual tools, your avatar will be able to co-mingle across whatever digital world you take it to, and that digital identity you’ve created can stay consistent across the metaverse.

Becker sees it as a “blank canvas” where individuals can use digital tools to define exactly what they want to be on the web. And in some regard, he says the comparison of the metaverse to the book and film “Ready Player One” is apt because of how people will craft entirely unique species, looks and accessories to wear and use wherever they go across the web.

“It’s really about gaining back that freedom, which one of them is around self-expression… The way people will be looking at our tools will not be about let me match my nose to the nose I have physically. They will be asking themselves, who do they want to be? And if they could be anything in the world, what will that look like,” Becker said. “Different genders, different voices, different species, different fashion styles completely, different social economics, all these traits. Why take what you have physically? It’s really about stripping all of that away and with complete freedom and complete control, who do you want to be? That’s one of our most passionate throughlines through the company, being who they want to be.”

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Protecting your digital DNA

The advent of blockchain, cryptocurrency and NFTs has led to a realization that when it comes to the metaverse, ownership is key. Genies’ Becker believes that not being able to own what you create is a “non-starter” in Web3, and the company recently announced that users will own whatever you create with its tools.

“People spend so much time, create so much content and drive Web2 organizations to insanely large valuations, and at the end of the day, they own all the content that users are creating. I think there has been a cultural awakening that’s been accumulating for years,” Becker said. “People are ready for the next wave and are getting more clarity around what their content creations and contributions to the web really mean.”

To that end, people exploring metaverse possibilities are paying more attention to who owns what online and how they’re protected, registering trademarks that secures their virtual assets and relying on companies like Hyperreal and Genies to help in that process and even identify pirated copies.

“If you don’t have your 3D image rights, you’re not as protected as when you do,” Scott said. “There are people using software programs to emulate synthetically the likeness of talent and put words in their mouths without permission, currently under the guise of entertainment, but this is a very dangerous place for images and rights, and our goal is to help talent be able to control and own their image rights in this whole new landscape.”

Remington Scott Hyperreal
Hyperreal CEO Remington Scott (Courtesy of Rogers & Cowan)

So when Hyperreal is designing models for its clients, the company seeks to capture not only the person’s appearance but also how they move and speak. The technology includes AI and machine learning so that your model can be trained to have motions and performances that are entirely unique.

For instance, Scott explains that it’s possible to capture a musician performing a song in sync with their own music — but that AI technology might also allow the service to remove the song and substitute entirely new music. And Hyperreal is in the early stages of experimenting with just that idea.

“The element here is that everything that we record is the talent’s. They own it. It’s their digital signature for how they speak, how they move, all of this,” Scott said. “So if there’s an opportunity to take that and build new ways that interacts with an audience or interacts on a one-on-one level, now we’re talking about creating more of an emotional connection that’s true to the talent.”

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Planning for the future

Hyperreal claims its digital acquisition process isn’t based on a single point of technology that one day might make models look out of date or obsolete in a few years’ time. As technology evolves, so can your Hypermodel (with a few tweaks) — all without changing the underlying digital DNA.

That means that whether it’s on a VR headset or an Imax screen with the highest resolution, your digital likeness can go wherever it needs. And the high-end talent making use of Hyperreal’s tech today want to be able to interact with the metaverse in the future in a way that will still be unique to their personality and how fans will want to connect with them.

“VFX production has now blurred out into TV, advertising, music videos, video games, installations, so now when the talent owns this, it not only means that it’s a digital extension of themselves … but they can bring it ready-made to the table,” Hyperreal’s Chris Travers said. “This is a great thing for anybody producing things in the metaverse or in film or TV.”

Becker said that experienced showbiz figures like Iger have been drawn not only to the technology but also how these digital tools are being put in the hands of the consumer to build what the future will look like. “You no longer have to be technical or have a large corporation underneath you like Disney. You just have to tap into your imagination and your entrepreneurial creativity,” Becker said. “How do we give everyone what Bob and team had at Disney? How do you give those capabilities to everyone out there to have their own identity, to have their own story lines, to have their own ecosystems so you can create experiences for other humans to play in?”

While we may still be years away from your own personal avatar virtually exploring an endless digital world, VFX companies already recognize their potential role to facilitate the metaverse experience for average consumers — as well as top entertainment and video-game companies.

“We are agnostic for all the different opportunities that will come to us,” Scott said. “Our goal is to create the emotional connection at the center of the metaverse, and that connection is by working with exceptional talent, driving their digital performances of the highest fidelity and resolution.”

This is part 3 of a WrapPRO special series: The Metaverse UnWrapped.

Monday: How to Lose a Billion Dollars in the Metaverse and Other Mysteries of Web3
Tuesday: Why Film Producers Are So Excited About the Metaverse: ‘Everybody’s Dream Can Come True’
Wednesday: Why VFX Companies Want to Craft Your Hyper-Real Avatar for the Metaverse
Thursday: Why Businesses Are Snatching Up Real Estate in the Metaverse

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