Amid the twerking and frolicking in “We Can’t Stop,” a 2013 Miley Cyrus music video, are brief scenes of pioneering experiments in computer-animated facial expression developed by Fred Parke, professor of visualization at Texas A&M, when he was a graduate student at the University of Utah in the early 1970s.
Parke said his students told him they had seen his work in the video, which debuted in June 2013. At that point, he knew why he’d gotten a phone call three weeks earlier requesting his permission to use the work in a music video.
“My take on that is it’s better to get some visibility than not,” said Parke, the Department of Visualization’s graduate program coordinator.
Parke, the first to digitally represent changing facial expressions, created a complex parametric model for his Ph.D. dissertation in which a face is divided into relational nodes and affected by variables including shape, position and color.
The basic technique, unprecedented at the time, is still widely used in digital animation today.
At the time, the University of Utah featured the nation’s most prominent computer graphics research center in the United States, which received funding from the United States’ Department of Defense to push the state of the art in computer graphics.
His groundbreaking work began in a graduate computer science class when his professor, Ivan Sutherland, who developed the first graphical user interface, asked students to “show me something I would think is interesting.”
Parke hadn’t seen any other work with computer-generated facial expressions, and it seemed like a challenging problem.
“I began developing extremely simple models and animation for faces, which eventually led to my master’s thesis and Ph.D dissertation,” he said.
After earning his Ph.D, his stops included a stint as director of the New York Institute of Technology’s graphics laboratory, where many more techniques now common in computer graphics and computer animation were developed. He joined the Texas A&M faculty in 1997, where he continues digital animation and immersive visualization research.
He’s also co-written “Computer Facial Animation” with Keith Waters, praised by Computing Reviews as the most thorough book about digital facial animation available.
“It provides a comprehensive review of the many techniques used in modern computer animation processes, surveys face creation and manipulation processes, and includes plenty of facial animation history and tips,” said the Midwest Book Review.
It’s unknown why Parke’s work was included in the Miley Cyrus video.
“One can speculate that the images were intended to invoke a kind of tech-y nostalgia, or signal a generic, retro-digital aesthetic,” wrote Jacob Gaboury in Rhizome, an online publication that covers art’s intersection with technology.
Ultimately, Gaboury wrote, “Parke's work reflects the desire long held by computer graphics researchers to simulate objects as complex and singular as the human face, to animate the inanimate and to capture the world in all its complexity.”
Park’s facial animation experiments can be seen at the 1:14-, 1:20- and 2:32-minute marks in the Cyrus video.