Dylan Thomas was born in Swansea in 1914 and lived here until he was twenty. Swansea inspired much of Thomas' great work, and now, over fifty years since his death, Dylan Thomas himself is the inspiration behind a ground-breaking project in Swansea.
The Virtual Dylan project is a realistic 3D computer animated performance of Dylan Thomas reading again his poem 'Do not go gentle into that good night'.
Developed by Swansea animation house, iCreate, the project will be premiered on the 9th November, the anniversary of Thomas' death and the last night of Swansea's annual Dylan Thomas Festival. But is has already had the seal of approval from Thomas' daughter, Aeronwy, who was invited for a private viewing last week.
Drawing on hundreds of photographs of the poet, and a 3D scan of his death mask, the animators have created a strikingly vivid 3D model of Dylan Thomas' head, breathing new life into the poet through the medium of 3D computer animation.
The concept of Virtual Dylan came out of MA research undertaken by Bernard Mitchell, managing director of production company, Bvirtual. His interest in the presence and absence of Dylan Thomas led him to explore the possibility of using the death mask and photographs of the poet to create a virtual talking head.
The animators at iCreate started work on the project in May 2005. "We took on this project because we knew it would be a challenge", explains Jake Major, creative director at iCreate. "Animating a human face is an ambitious task, because, as humans, we know exactly how a face should look and how it should move. any mistakes in the detail are instantly obvious".
"Given that no moving footage of Dylan Thomas exists, we hope that this televisual image of him will help to broaden his appeal among the younger generation, some of whom are more interested in television and film than in the written word", says Dawn Lyle, managing director of iCreate and co-producer of Virtual Dylan.
An ambitious project for a small team of animators, Virtual Dylan has been six months in development. The process of recreating Dylan in virtual reality is a painstaking one, involving numerous stages.
The project started with the 3D modelling of the head, using the death mask as reference, and matching the new model to the death mask as closely as possible; the animators also referred to numerous photographs of Dylan Thomas in life, to perfect the skin and hair tones.
The skin on Virtual Dylan is made from ten different 2D 'maps', controlling aspects such as colour, shine and texture. These maps are wrapped around the 2D head to create the finished effect, which certainly stands up to close examination. Dylan's hair was created in much the same way as a real-life wig, each strand and curl being manually positioned.
Having constructed and textured a 3D model that matched Dylan's apparent head and face shape as closely as possible, the next step was to create the animation.
Virtual Dylan has been closely synchronised with the real voice of Dylan Thomas, recorded in New York in 1953, shortly before his death. Thomas was one of the first poets to make recordings of his own poetry, so it seems fitting that he is also the first to perform it in virtual reality.
Liam Tandy is Lead Animator at iCreate. "The process of animating began with analysing the voice track really closely and breaking it down into its component sounds and mouth shapes. We also spent a day filming actor Bob Kingdom performing the poem, which was valuable reference to see how the mouth, face and head move as the words are spoken".
The animators then modelled a number of different mouth positions and facial expressions for the different parts of the poem, controlled by sliders which allowed them to use these in combination with each other, to create an infinite number of facial expressions.
The process of animating the head involved working through the poem repeatedly, frame by frame, adding more detail with each pass, constantly refining the animation.
"This is a process that could go on forever," explains Liam, "because you're always spotting bits that need refining, but eventually we had to stop tweaking it and start rendering the final film".
Of course, it would be foolish to claim that the real Dylan Thomas had been brought back to life. The aim of this project was not to create a new, iconic vision of the poet, but merely to bring into existence a believable performance of him reading his work.
Since Dylan Thomas died in New York in 1953, all moving footage of the poet has been lost. This virtual performance stands as the closest thing we have to seeing Dylan Thomas perform his own poetry.
In an age where young people have more time for television and film than for the written word, the animators hope to bring a fresh view of the poet to new audiences, and pave the way for similar projects in future.
Virtual Dylan adds visible life to the poet's stirring reading and will stand as a lasting tribute.
"This is Madame Tussauds for the 21st century, a way of breathing new life into historical and literary figures," says Dawn Lyle, co-producer. "We are excited about the numerous potential uses for this technology, and hope this project will spark the imagination of others across the UK."