We Spoke to the Digital Specialist Behind Obama's 3D-Printed Portrait

Dennis Martin of Autodesk pieced together a 3D map of the POTUS.

by Becky Chung
Dec 26 2014, 5:00pm

Images courtesy of Autodesk, unless otherwise noted

A thundering procession of lights rattle on and off as the image of the President of the United States of America begins to appear on screen. Using “50 custom-built LED lights, eight high-resolution sports photography cameras, and an additional six wider-angle cameras,” the "mobile light stage," as described by Paul Debevec of USC's Institute for Creative Technologies, captures the likeness of the POTUS. The result of this effort now sits in the Smithsonian: the first 3D-printed portrait of Obama

Many scans and images of President Barack Obama, from all angles and lighting, were documented during the 3D scanning session needed for the first 3D-printed presidential portrait. But how was this raw data knitted together into a fully fleshed-out model of the president's visage? They did it in post—post-processing, that is—at the hands of Dennis Martin, Digital Artist and Reality Solutions Content Specialist at Autodesk. Previously, Martin created photorealistic VFX environments for films.

“3D scanning was mainly chosen for accuracy,” Martin told The Creators Project. For the capture phase, three technologies were used: the light and camera stage setup Debevec and his team caught every detail of Obama’s face with, the handheld Artek scanners that mapped his torso, and the high-end DSLR cameras that orbited Obama’s head for the photogrammetry take. “Once an artist has a mesh from scans, many capabilities are opened up: you can repose the head angle or exaggerate facial features,” Martin explained.

From this raw data, he and his team had to create the meshes for 3D printing, which required aligning the photos from all three captures, cleaning up the seams where the different pieces met, and designing a cutaway section and plinth. In order to create the cutaways and plinth, they referred to existing busts of Abraham Lincoln and Ben Franklin from the National Portrait Gallery for inspiration.

Photo courtesy of Digital Program Office / Smithsonian Institution

“Sculpting tools were used to smooth the seams where the meshes had been merged, and to fix things such as an unfortunate wrinkle in the shirt—sort of the 3D equivalent of Photoshopping a 2D photo for a portrait,” said Martin. The team also had to create a color 3D model, which involved matching colors from different capture techniques, and transferring each texture to the combined mesh, and blending the textures where they overlapped. 

Martin believes a new trend may have sparked in the White House: “I wouldn't be surprised if 3D scans and prints become standard in future presidential portraits." The final bust and life mask will be on display at the Commons gallery of the Smithsonian Institution Building (also known as The Castle) until the end of the month. Both pieces will then enter the collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC where they will take their place beside Abraham Lincoln's life mask, the artifact that originally inspired the high-tech project. 


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barack obama
3D scanning
3D Printed
3D-Printed Presidential Portrait
3D-Printed president
Paul Debevec
USC Institute for Creative Technologies
dennis martin
presidential portrait