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VFX company files injunction to block three Disney blockbusters

MOVA wants to halt distribution of "Guardians of the Galaxy," "Avengers: Age of Ultron" and "Beauty and the Beast."
Steve Dent, @stevetdent
July 20, 2017
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You probably haven't heard of a special effects company called MOVA, but you've seen its Contour facial-capture technology in films like Guardians of the Galaxy and Beauty and the Beast. It could also have a big impact your entertainment choices. The company behind the tech, Rearden LLC, has filed an injunction against Walt Disney Co. to block those two films, along with Avengers: Age of Ultron, from sales or distribution.

MOVA Contour is used to capture facial movements in a much more detailed way than rival tech. Rather than using markers, actors' faces are painted with a phosphor dye. Then, over 25 cameras capture their facial expressions, resulting in many more data points than competing systems. "I'm so pleased that we did it the way we did it because ... [the system] really captures the subtlety of Dan's facial expression and the performance he gives," said co-star Emma Watson about Beauty and the Beast.

Along with the other films mentioned, it's also been used in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Gravity, Deadpool and many others. Much of that work was done by special effects firm Digital Domain (known legally as Digital Domain 3.0) which worked on The Fate of the Furious, Spider-Man: Homecoming and many other tent-pole CG films.

"Beauty and the Beast" (Walt Disney Co.)

The problem, Rearden claims, is that Digital Domain 3.0 doesn't own the rights to MOVA's technology. Founder Steve Perlman alleges that a former employee, Greg LaSalle, pilfered the tech and unlawfully sold it to a Chinese firm affiliated with the effects firm for a mere $25,000 in mid-2013 (see this THR report for much more on the saga).

Rearden claims that it directly worked with Disney in the past on four major features. Furthermore, it said the studio knew it was disputing Digital Domain's ownership, because Disney was considering buying the tech itself and dropped out after receiving a "demand letter" from Rearden.

In other words, it's claiming that Disney can't plead ignorance about who owned the tech. "Disney never bothered to contact its longtime MOVA Contour service provider Rearden LLC to ask any questions or to verify Disney's authorization to use the MOVA Contour system," the lawsuit states.

The Chinese company affiliated with Digital Domain 3.0 that purchased MOVA last year claimed that Perlman had "a severe bout of 'seller's remorse' " after the technology won an Academy Award. However, in June, 2016 a judge blocked Digital Domain 3.0 from using the tech, putting the technology "temporarily out of play" in Hollywood, an IP lawyer said at the time. A trial was held later in the year, but a decision is still pending.

The lawsuit hinges on whether Perlman's firm or the Chinese companies that licensed the tech to Digital Domain 3.0 are the actual owners. However, an IP lawyer told the NYT last year that its unlikely that a court will block the release of a major movie. It could, however, disrupt movies that Digital Domain is currently working on, something the FX company confirmed last year to THR.

Nevertheless, Rearden wants a court to order Disney to destroy all infringing copies of Beauty and the Beast, Avengers: Age of Ultron and Guardians of the Galaxy. All told, those films have raked in over $3.5 billion.

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