Being Abraham Lincoln

Christopher Oakley, left with  Christina Jones and Taija Tevia-Clark . Photo by Matt Rose

Christopher Oakley, left with Christina Jones and Taija Tevia-Clark . Photo by Matt Rose

Abraham Lincoln look-a-like contests are a fun staple of many county fairs and festivals. But very few people can claim direct family ties to America’s Civil War president.

One day several years ago, while Christopher Oakley was visiting a park in San Francisco, a stranger approached him. “This is going to sound really strange,” the man said, “but I’m a psychic, and I’ve been getting very strong vibes off of you. I want to do a reading. No charge. It’ll just take five minutes.”

Oakley was skeptical and wary, but he was in a public place, so he said OK. They moved to a quiet bench. The psychic sat silently for a few minutes. Finally, he turned to Oakley, looked at him, and said: “You knew Lincoln.”

According to the psychic, Oakley had been a guard in the Lincoln White House in a former life — part of the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment assigned to protect the president. Oakley was dumbstruck.

It was oddly reminiscent of something his grandmother had told him years ago: that his great-grandfather had served in the White House’s inner circle, guarding Lincoln.

In fact, Oakley, an assistant professor in New Media at UNCA, has been resurrecting Abraham Lincoln since staring into a portrait of the president, right beside the ABCs, in kindergarten. More recently, he’s been working with a group of undergraduate researchers on a project featuring Lincoln. Oakley began his career as a stop-motion animator in the 1980s and went digital in 1995, when he was recruited by Walt Disney Feature Animation to work on its pioneering CGI film Dinosaur.

The Gettysburg Address is perhaps the most famous three-minute speech in Western history. Called to say “a few appropriate remarks” to consecrate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg, PA, Lincoln on November 19, 1863, exhorted his listeners to complete the cause the Union soldiers died for, so “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

The president prophesied in his short speech that “the world [would] little note, nor long remember” the words he spoke. And yet they were branded into national consciousness. A hundred years after the fact, in 1965, Disneyland debuted “Great Moments with Mr. Lincoln,” an audio-animatronic presentation viewed by millions.

Now, motion-capture and facial-animation software are helping Oakley and his team at UNCA create a digital/3D version of Lincoln’s address. So far, they’ve done life-like images of the president’s head and hands, using castings that were made during Lincoln’s presidency and checking their work against a famous photo taken by Alexander Gardner two days before the Gettysburg Address.

As former animation supervisor for Electronic Arts’ Medal of Honor video games, Oakley started the project partly to make sure his student researchers gain commercially viable skills. Their work goes far beyond what might be learned in the classroom. Having the “Virtual Lincoln Project” on their résumés “will get the attention of anybody hiring out there,” Oakley said recently in his office on campus.

On his computer, Oakly brings up image after image of the students’ work, each one looking more and more like the plaster casting of Lincoln’s head that stands mounted in the corner of his light-filled office.

The students scanned the casting with a 3D digital scanner, which broke the topography of Lincoln’s heavy, lopsided face into several wire-frame meshes they used to create the structure and substructure of the famous head. Students working on hair, skin, eyes and beard combined their work at the end of the first semester — and were less than impressed with the results. “Game Lincoln,” as they called him, was a broad-stroke portrait good enough for a video game. But it wasn’t Lincoln.

During Christmas break, Oakley shifted the students’ direction. Using the scanner, he mapped the head of another Lincoln bust, done five years later, shortly before Lincoln was killed. He spent hours rendering wrinkles, blemishes and bags, bringing forth the weariness Lincoln wore while trying to keep the Union together. Then he combined the students’ early work with his new sculpture.

“Here’s what we ended up with,” says Oakley, looking on his computer at an image that is as Lincoln as a five-dollar bill.

Next semester they’ll fine-tune Lincoln’s body and refine his clothes, modeling them from a photo Oakley shot last year of the suit Lincoln wore in his office in the White House. When they’ve finished all the imagery, Oakley will hire an actor to bring Lincoln to life via motion capture. Fitted with sensors, the actor will stand up and deliver that most notable of speeches.

Visit for more on the Virtual Lincoln Project

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