The 2009 Creativity 50: Eric Barba and Ed Ulbrich

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Ed Ulbrich (left) and Eric Barba
Ed Ulbrich (left) and Eric Barba
Always the path cutter when it comes to putting the seemingly impossible on the screen, Digital Domain outdid itself this year. And that's saying something. The cowboys at the double D ranch, led by Ed Ulbrich and Eric Barba, have been working for the past five-plus years bringing The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to theaters and doing it in such a way as to make their work disappear behind the story of the man who aged backwards. Working with director David Fincher and using a modded version of Mova's Contour "reality capture" system, DD developed a mind-bending process that allowed Brad Pitt to play—really play—a character from age 80-something to 50-something.

While the studio had cleared hurdles on big ticket pictures in the past, here was the ultimate test—a photoreal human who didn't distract you by being, er, not real. For all the hard won geek glory (including an Oscar nomination for VFX), the DD brain trust says the real magic is the studio's relationships with directors—the effects team's ability to act as an extension of a director's storytelling impulse, not, as EVP/commercials president Ed Ulbrich puts it, as just the "effects nerds showing up." In the meantime, DD contributed to a full slate of spots, including reuniting with director Joseph Kosinski on "Rendezvous" and "Last Day," for Gears of War 2. Folks at DD are tight lipped about what's next, but something big is in the works that will up the ante on the technology honed on Button (if the online geek contingent is to be believed, that project is the hotly anticipated Kosinski-helmed Tron 2, or, annoyingly, TR2N).

Ulbrich, on the next challenge: "The challenge we're facing today is not really technical in nature. It's in getting people to think differently about technology. New digital tools aren't just for creating aliens or exploding things, or for 'post.' They're now basic storytelling tools just like cameras, lenses and lights. Once creatives, producers, and filmmakers understand that these tools can give them the power to tell stories in new ways—or to tell new stories altogether—a whole new world of possibilities opens to them. That's when things get exciting."

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