Of all the possible subjects of 3D animation, real and imagined, none is so challenging to perfect as an ordinary human being. From the intricacies of the hair and eyes to the infinite variety of facial expressions and movement patterns, the human form is the ultimate test of an artist’s skill.
Mao Lin Liao, founder and CEO of REBLIKA, is one of the most renowned “digital human” creators in the world. He is best known for his Terre des Hommes’ “Sweetie” creation, a digital representation of a ten-year-old Filipino girl used to catch child predators online. For his efforts, Liao was awarded 12 Golden Lions and the Grand Prix for Good at the prestigious Cannes Lions International Festival for Creativity, but his lifelike creations have also been featured in films, video games, and advertising campaigns.
He graciously agreed to speak with us about his craft, the difficulties of creating a digital human being, and the growing demand for digital avatars.
Mao Lin Liao’s Background
Creating a lifelike digital human requires a wide breadth of learning and years of experience, and Mao Lin Liao possesses both, having worked in 3D design for more than 20 years. “I always worked between different industries and learned everything myself, because I was easily bored in a single field,” he told us. “When I worked in the games industry for too long, I grew fed up and switched to film. Nothing held my attention for very long until I discovered my interest in digital humans.”
Unsurprisingly, it was the challenge that drew Liao to this very particular aspect of design. “Creating a photorealistic character is one of the most difficult things to do in 3D. You can do cars or you can do buildings, and usually, it will be alright, but creating lifelike humans is the holy grail of CG, I think.”
The Creation of REBLIKA
REBLIKA specializes in one thing and one thing only: creating photorealistic digital humans. That makes it something of an oddity, considering that most design studios aren’t nearly so specialized. How did Liao arrive at this unique idea?
“The idea was born when I realized that most of the major design studios offer a generalized service, bidding on whole projects rather than specializing in one aspect of it. I thought to myself, ‘Hey, maybe if there were a company specializing in only creating digital humans, they would have a better chance of surviving in this saturated market.’ I didn’t want to create a carbon copy of another studio; I wanted to specialize in what I was good at. I thought that would give me a better chance of surviving.”
Time has proven him correct. “Most companies don’t have our level of specialization, and so when they start to work on a human, they need to do a lot of R&D, a lot of trial and error, and they end up making a lot of mistakes. But with our background and experience, we don’t need to reinvent the wheel for each new project. We already have the wheel. We can use our skills to take shortcuts and get the most out of the models, to deliver the best possible digital human.”
The name itself, Liao told us, is a play off the “replicant” concept from the popular science fiction film Blade Runner, with the company’s logo a mirrored (or replicated R)
Where Does the Demand for Digital Humans Come From?
The two major sources of demand are, unsurprisingly, the film and video game industries, but REBLIKA has also branched out into other, more unconventional ventures. We’ve already mentioned Sweetie, the digital 10-year-old girl used to catch child predators without endangering flesh-and-blood children, but there are other opportunities as well.
“We’re also working in the fashion industry, scanning clothing from fashion weeks. Every fashion week in Paris, Milan, and Shanghai, we’re there. We bring our own mannequins and digitize the clothes. One of the fashion-focused companies we work for, based in Korea, creates 3D look books out of some of the scans we do.”
It’s not hard to imagine the possibilities inherent in this kind of work: forget window shopping or catalog browsing, but picture yourself in a VR showroom, or front row during a digital runway modeling show.
Other companies are looking to digital humans as avatars or to replace conventional models and fashion influencers. And while Liao has been sworn to secrecy on the specifics, more than a few celebrities are eager to take advantage of the ageless possibilities made possible by having a digital double.
What Kind of Skill Set Does Liao Look for in an Artist?
Because of Liao’s background, he has a strong respect for self-motivated learners. “I don’t have a traditional background. I never graduated; I was an early dropout. But I’ve come to believe that having a strong portfolio of creative, interesting projects is a better indicator than an impressive paper résumé. You have to be committed and eager to learn to make this work, so I tend to pick people based on their character. You can have a very good artist, but if they’re rigid or inflexible or difficult to work with, it won’t work.”
It also helps if they have a familiarity with Maya and Arnold, since those are the main subscriptions used by REBLIKA.
What Does the Future Hold for Digital Humans?
One untapped market Liao is eager to explore with REBLIKA is giving corporeal form to digital assistants like Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. “Imagine we had a face for Alexa. Imagine we had a face for all the smart assistants. We can work together as tech companies to build a more realistic avatar. That would be an ultimate goal of mine.”
He also points to HBO’s Westworld, a science fiction show involving lifelike animatronic humans, as capturing the essence of his ambition. “I really like the combination of high tech and high art. That’s where I want to be: high tech, sci-fi, modern. We’re not there yet, but hopefully one day we can be.”
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