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This Maryland company is the 3-D scanning firm for Hollywood stars

Direct Dimensions X-Men: Days of Future PastDirect Dimensions X-Men: Days of Future Past
Direct Dimensions scanned RFK Stadium in Washington, D.C. to help create this scene in the 2014 film X-Men: Days of Future Past.Courtesy of 20th Century Fox

With headquarters about 20 minutes outside Baltimore, Direct Dimensions’ work is easy to sum up. “We scan stuff,” says Michael Raphael, who founded the company in 1995. That’s it. Direct Dimensions works at the intersection of companies that need digital renderings and the technology that makes those renderings easier than ever to create. In the last seven years, the firm has become a go-to company for Hollywood, 3-D scanning film sets, props, even actors themselves.

Computer-aided design technology, or CAD, isn’t new. (CAD software dates to the 1960s.) It wasn’t until the personal-computing boom of the 1980s and 1990s that a variety of industries quickly began to adopt the technology. Direct Dimensions was part of that wave. The company has scanned sections of airplanes, cars, and wind turbines, as well as the Washington National Cathedral in D.C., the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, and the bust of George Washington that sits atop his eponymous monument in midtown Baltimore.

But Direct Dimensions’ 3-D scanning work has made its starriest appearance on celluloid. The ark in the movie Noah? Scanned by Direct Dimensions. Ben Stiller for his role in The Secret Life of Walter Mitty? Scanned by Direct Dimensions. Andrew Garfield swinging through Times Square in The Amazing Spider-Man 2? Direct Dimensions scanned him too—as well as the square itself. Working in New York from 4 p.m. to midnight over the course of four nights last winter, Direct Dimensions’ crews used portable 3-D scanners that sit atop tripods, spin around vertically and horizontally, and shoot laser beams in a spherical pattern with a distance of 400 meters. “You’re not seeing through anything; you’re not getting interiors of buildings,” Raphael says. “You’re getting the façade as you would see it.” Raphael’s employees took hundreds of scans of Times Square—from rooftops, from the street, from aerial lifts above the crowds. The company then stitched together the scans to make a giant scene of the iconic square.

“Before this kind of technology, you’d need a modeler to come in and make a model of that actor with pictures. But with Direct Dimensions, they can come in and do an accurate scan of that person, and you use that as the basis for your [computer-generated] model and your visual effect shot,” says Viet Luu, a freelance visual effects coordinator who has worked with Raphael on several movies, including Noah and Men in Black 3.

Direct Dimensions 3D scan Caligula statue
A 3-D laser scan of the Caligula statue at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts in Richmond.Courtesy of Direct Dimensions
Courtesy of Direct Dimensions

The goal is to make any computer-generated film scenes look as real as possible. To illustrate this, Luu uses the example of a car running into a building. “We would scan that building, and photo-texture it, and the visual effects company would go in and grab the scan that Direct Dimensions had done, apply the photo textures, and you might shoot some pieces of a car running into a building or driving, and you would fit those pieces together,” Luu says. “But it would be a computer-generated world where you can control all the pieces.” With control of those pieces, visual effects professionals can produce action scenes, explosions, and a number of other shots that would’ve been chaotic, difficult, or impossible to get by other means.

Most of the technology that Direct Dimensions uses to produce its 3-D scans are products that can be purchased in your local Walmart, such as a digital SLR camera. Other scanning tools, such as the handheld, portable digitizers the company uses, are manufactured by other companies. Some of Direct Dimensions’ tools were cobbled together. If you’ve been inside the MLB Fan Cave in New York City in the last year, you’ve probably seen one in action: the ShapeShot, a photo booth that uses store-bought digital cameras, firing simultaneously, to take an immediate and accurate 3-D scan of a person’s face. The scan is saved as a private, digital file to an online database synced with Shapeways, the online 3-D-printing marketplace, and can then be used to print a 3-D bust or a bobblehead of someone’s face.

Another custom Direct Dimensions tool is its body-capture setup, a 360-degree rig of between 50 and 100 DSLR cameras, which is how the company took accurate digital scans of Victoria’s Secret model Karlie Kloss for a 3-D-printed fashion shoot. The rig is entirely focused on human bodies, which means people standing in the middle can strike any pose wearing almost any costume. The digital cameras then all fire at once, and the digital capture is complete.

When full-body scans of movie stars are required, it’s this sort of system that Direct Dimensions employs in its work for the film industry. This kind of 3-D scanning technology will only become more prevalent in Hollywood. “It’s the early days still,” Raphael says. “Movies are very, very expensive, but it’s a lot cheaper to do these types of things in the computer. You can change lighting; you can control the situation. The idea of virtually created things like this is going to be the normal.”