It’s been nearly a year since President Obama’s 3-D scanned and printed portrait bust was unveiled at the first White House Maker Faire on June 18, 2014. In February 2015, during President’s Day weekend, the bust made a brief appearance at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington DC, where it—along with the 3-D scanned and printed presidential life mask of Mr. Obama, and the set of data used to make the bust and life mask—are now a part of the permanent collection of the museum.
When first unveiled in June 2014, a writer at Fast Company characterized the likeness as “kinda creepy,” commenting that the eyeballs looked “dead.”
That didn’t stop visitors to the National Portrait Gallery from oohing and aahing, or snapping selfies next Obama’s portrait mug. And, as the 3D Digitization Program Officers, Adam Metallo and Vince Rossi, the so-called “laser cowboys” who first proposed the notion of scanning a sitting president pointed out, these are data sets, not an artistic rendering.
The National Portrait Gallery’s Chief Curator, Brandon Fortune, referred to the work of Houdon, who sculpted the portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin, amongst others. “When he came to America it was because he wanted to make a life mask. What he didn’t want was for an American artist to make a portrait and send it to him.” From the still and rested features of the facemask, Houdon could translate the features into more animated poses. “There is something to the way a gifted artist works with materials to give the likeness more life and energy.”
Metallo and Rossi didn’t migrate into the 3D Digitization Program Office (DPO) until 2010 and 2011, respectively. Previously, both had worked in the Office of Exhibits Central (OEC), applying traditional skills in sculpture and painting toward the creation of exhibitions. After a little tinkering in 3-D software of ZBrush and Rhino, they wrote grants for OEC to acquire laser scanners and 3D printers to make more accurate models for exhibition.
“One of the first things that Adam and I did was to scan each other’s faces,” recalled Rossi. “It was a fun lunch-time activity.” It wasn’t merely goofing off: such exercises helped them push the boundaries of what they could do with the technology since, “scanning dead immovable objects is a relatively straight forward task.” Amongst the first still objects they scanned were Abraham Lincoln’s hand casts, from the National Museum of American History, in 2009. Once promoted to digitization program officers, their attention broadened from exhibitions to include other Smithsonian interests of research, education, and conservation—and with it an interest to scan the life masks of Abraham Lincoln. As Günter Waibel director of DPO pointed out in a blog post, and numerous news pieces, scanning Lincoln’s life mask was the catalyst to scan the president. “It was a pretty natural step to think about applying this [3D capture] technology in a similar way that Leonard Volk and Clark Mills used plaster with Lincoln,” noted Rossi.
Despite having several state-of-the-art commercial scanners at their disposal, the highest quality image that could be captured the fastest resided on a light stage at the University of Southern California. Designed by Paul Debevec, chief visual officer of the Graphics Laboratory at USC, the light stage has been used to capture the data of dozens of actors for films like Avatar, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, King Kong, and Spiderman 2 & 3.
Debevec was invited to speak about his work at the Smithsonian x 3D Conference in November 2013, presenting a variety of projects. For those interested in research and conservation, they learned about his virtual restoration of the Parthenon and its sculptures, which was included in broadcasts on the 2004 Olympics and on PBS’s NOVA. But, his presentation soon turned to his work on big budget films in Hollywood.
In the spring, Debevec received an e-mail from Waibel, inquiring of Debevec’s interest to travel back to DC for a scanning project: sometime in the next couple of months. “We had guesses as to who it might be,” noted Debevec, whose team had been building a mobile version of the light stage. “If Günter was asking, it might be someone important.” By late May his team received a phone call indicating a date of June 9, with the President of the United States. “We had four very actively inventive days in our lab over Memorial Day Weekend to finish the presidential scanner,” Debevec recalled.
The mobile light stage presented several design problems. Considering the narrow hallways within parts of the White House, his team had to consider how to rig the equipment to fold and fit in a crate. Their designs limited the stage to 50 light sources, which Debevec found to be poetic, “one for each star on the flag.” But other issues were anticipated due to time constraints within the president’s afternoon schedule: issues concerning camera focus, working in ambient light, and calculations of the right illumination. “With an A list actor we have five–to–ten minutes to adjust cameras and retrain focus,” noted Debevec. “This was a case where that time was not available.” With all of the custom cameras and circuitry, despite numerous trials and test runs—both in California, and while setting up in the White House on June 8 and 9—one thought hung in the back of Debevec’s mind. “On the day when you press the button will the cameras and lights synchronize?”
Well aware of possible hardware and software failures, the Laser Cowboys were prepared with hand-held structured light scanners. In fact, they used two. “mostly to cut down on scan time,” recalled Rossi, “with the added benefit being that if one of the scanners was to fail we’d still be able to get what we needed.” Part of that need arose from a limitation in the design of the light stage, which could only capture the frontal features of the president’s bust. “We made many practice runs in the weeks leading up to the POTUS scan,” Rossi remarked. Arguably, he and Metallo had been making practice runs since they first started scanning their faces over lunch, six years ago.
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