Williston man makes his mark creating ‘virtual influencers’

BURLINGTON, Vt. (WCAX) – A Vermont man is taking on the international fashion world and working to make it more eco-friendly, and he’s doing it from the comfort of his home in Williston.

Elijah Thurston spends a lot of time on his computer nowadays. “To really get the realism, you have to just go in close. You have to go super, super micro,” Thurston explained.

But, he’s not playing video games. He says he’s working to make the fashion industry greener. He began playing around with DAZ Studio, a program used to build and render fake models, about 10 years ago. He’s dabbled ever since, but the pandemic made his full-time photography gig tough. “So, I turned to that, and it’s kind of blown up,” Thurston said.

Now, he’s the owner of Fashion Models 3D, forging his way into fashion one fake face at a time. Big brands like Gucci and Prada have been known to use what are called ‘virtual influencers,’ computer-generated human models to be the faces of their companies. Thurston says it’s a new market with skeptics, but he’s optimistic that it’ll stick. That’s because there’s an eco-friendly side to this that is tough to beat. Ideally, this helps with lowering emissions for an industry that’s said to be responsible for 10% of all carbon emissions each year, according to the UN Environment Programme.

“This completely negates that. We can have fashion designers totally do digital outfits and then have models to advertise them on without any need for materials, anything like that,” Thurston said.

Without having to fly in models, make-up artists, and hairstylists, the thought is that virtual influencers will bring that 10% down, while creating an image that could easily fool the average viewer.

“Each time I try to make something realistic, I try to do a little more realistic afterwards, a little more. It’s kind of just this ever-continuing adventure in 3D realism,” Thurston said.

We were there as Thurston built a special Channel 3 Model, walking us through each detailed step, from lighting to camera angles to putting pores on skin. “With this, you have the option to just freeze everything and just play around with the camera. In an actual studio setting, you don’t get that luxury. People don’t stand still or keep the perfect expression,” Thurston explained.

All a designer would have to do is send a 3D-rendered image of an object for Thurston to put on a model for the advertisement. He understands the clothes would need to be produced in the end, creating a smaller carbon footprint, than the traditional commercial fashion route. But for this designer, the joy is in creating the image. “I think it’s very much an artistic medium. And when we can have something that fuels our creativity but also doesn’t have this negative impact on the environment, I think that’s great,” Thurston said.

He says another aspect of this that makes it eco-friendly is the lack of NFTs, or non-fungible tokens, that are often seen and used in the fashion world. Those, he says, use a lot of energy to create, which would negate his work to reduce the industry’s carbon footprint.

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