Disney Facing VFX Firm's Injunction Bid on Three Blockbuster Films

'Guardians of the Galaxy,' 'Avengers: Age of Ultron' and 'Beauty and the Beast' are now under the microscope for use of facial capture technology.
Courtesy of Digital Domain

Upping the stakes over a technology called "performance motion capture," Rearden LLC is going after The Walt Disney Company in a lawsuit filed Monday. The plaintiff, a firm incubated by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Steve Perlman, is demanding an injunction prohibiting Disney from distributing Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Beauty and the Beast.

The new lawsuit comes a year after Rearden scored a startling injunction against two Chinese firms that purchased allegedly stolen technology known as MOVA, which was being licensed by Digital Domain 3.0. At the time, some legal observers were reading the ruling as notice to Hollywood studios that the facial motion capture technology was out of play.

According to Rearden's latest lawsuit in California federal court, Disney didn't listen.

"Disney used the stolen MOVA Contour systems and methods, made derivative works, and reproduced, distributed, performed, and displayed at least Guardians of the Galaxy, Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Beauty and the Beast, in knowing or willfully blind violation of Rearden Mova LLC’s intellectual property rights."

A former scientist at Apple and Microsoft, Perlman self-funded a technology incubator in the late 1990s. He claims a portfolio of more than 500 inventions. He says he's been working on MOVA since it was unveiled in 2006 to movie and video game industry professionals. It's first high-profile use was on 2008's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which used the early MOVA technology to create a computer-generated version of the title character, played by Brad PItt, who de-ages in the film. Benjamin Button went on to win an Oscar for VFX, and following more use on additional films, in 2015 the MOVA technology was recognized by the AMPAS with a SciTech Award, though even then Pearlman disputed the development credit.

Perlman's dispute with former colleague and Digital Domain 3.0 employee Greg LaSalle would fuel the prior lawsuit that would involve an FBI investigation into economic espionage and result in an injunction. Currently, Digital Domain is challenging the injunction before the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit.

Now, Rearden is now bringing patent, copyright and trademark claims against Disney.

The complaint (read in full here) cites interviews with Beauty and the Beast actor Dan Stevens and others on the film explaining how the technology worked. Stevens, for instance, talked about how he'd go into a booth and have his face sprayed before 27 cameras captured facial expressions. "They would take that information and morph it onto the Beast," said Stevens.

Court papers include many photographs, including one of a MOVA Contour rig that allegedly was operated on Guardians of the Galaxy and Beauty and the Beast and "shows the thieves neglected to move a Rearden, Inc. Asset Tag on one of the stolen cameras."

Rearden sees all of this as evidence that its technology is in use. Further, the plaintiff says Disney had previously contracted use of MOVA for other films like TRON: Legacy, Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides, John Carter and the original Avengers film to anticipate any defense of ignorance.

The lawsuit now lays claim on some of Disney's more successful recent blockbusters. Beauty and the Beast, for instance, has grossed more than $1.2 billion worldwide.

"But in all of the film industry and media accolades about the record-breaking success of Beauty and the Beast, and the acclaimed cutting-edge digital MOVA Contour technology that made the film’s success possible, nowhere is it mentioned that the patented and copyright-protected MOVA Contour technology was stolen from its inventor and developer, Rearden LLC, and its owner Rearden Mova LLC," states the complaint. "Nowhere is it mentioned that although Disney had previously contracted with Rearden LLC and its controlled entities on four previous major motion pictures to use MOVA Contour and knew of a Rearden Demand Letter to one of the thieves demanding immediate return of the stolen MOVA Contour system, Disney nonetheless contracted with the thieves to use the stolen MOVA Contour system. And, nowhere is it mentioned that after Rearden and Rearden Mova were in widely-reported litigation against the thieves, Disney secretly used MOVA Contour in Beauty and the Beast throughout the litigation, and then prior to the film’s release, flaunted its unauthorized use of MOVA Contour as a promotional vehicle for the film."

Besides an injunction, Rearden also demands actual damages and profits attributed to infringement. The plaintiff is represented by Steve Berman, Mark Carlson and Rio Pierce at Hagens Berman.

Disney hasn't yet responded to a request to comment on the lawsuit. Digital Domain was contacted and declined comment.

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