Should We CGI Dead Actors?
Another year another new controversy has sprang up in Hollywood, should we CGI Actors?
A long time ago I remember a book that I borrowed over and over from the school library about special effects in film. The very end had a section about what the future may hold with what can be done with computers. Maybe one day Marilyn Monroe could act again in films. I hadn’t thought about that book in many years. Like the old saying goes, “the future is now!” Warning this… whole article is going over SPOILERS for the recent “Star Wars” film.
So I’m going to assume if you haven’t already seen it then at least you’ve heard of this little thing called “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” And most likely you’ve also heard a few old characters were brought back to make an appearance. One was Darth Vader and then Senator Organa, Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, and lastly “A New Hope” era Princess Leia. As a Star Wars fan since… always, I was delighted to see all of these. For the most part… I recognize they were fan service and the film could have been done without them, but good lord were they satisfying. I do feel it would have been more effective to not have shown Princess Leia’s face, just show her from the back. We all would have known it was her from the hair and the last line was gimmicky. The other main issue for most people was something looked off about her face. Remember the beginning of “Ant-Man” with Michael Douglas? It’s the same thing here they used CGI to bring these characters back. Well that’s a bit of an oversimplification. They had actors on the set who resembled the characters and essentially mapped the other face onto theirs. What makes this so nice is that it seems Hollywood is finally figuring out how to do this right. CGI is great, but it works best as an enhancement to practicals and these examples look really good. We’re not totally there yet but it’s close. The “Ant-Man” scene was about as perfect of a version of the effect as I’ve seen, but just because something works in one film doesn’t mean everyone else will be able to make it work. At the end Princess Leia did look somewhat off and I’m not sure exactly why it didn’t work as well.
However, Grand Moff Tarkin looked much better. Which I find interesting since compared to Carrie Fisher he had much more unusual facial features. His cheek bones were so pronounced that it almost looks like an effect in themselves, but no that’s just how the guy looked. I even had family members who I had to explain that the actor Peter Cushing has been dead since 1994. Not to act superior, but they don’t study film or watch all the making of’s like I do so it’s not surprising that it fooled them. And there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s just a fact. So now that we’re on the same page on to the point of this article, is what they did ethically right? Should Hollywood be able to just CGI dead actors? We already have issues with artist’s songs being used against their wishes like Beatles songs in Nike commercials. Some see this as an even worse version of that. “Is death not even sacred anymore?!”
Well first thing to remember is that this isn’t new. When John Candy died before finishing all of his scenes for “Wagons East” they used computers to cut him from other scenes and paste into different ones. Remember that 2004 movie “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow?” If you watched it you’d know the villain was played by the iconic Laurence Olivier even though he had been dead since 1989. They used footage from earlier films for it. Even “Superman Returns” used previously unseen takes of the equally iconic Marlon Brando and some CGI to get new angles for the new scenes. Nobody really complains about those instances. The filmmakers of “Wagons East” didn’t have too many other options and the other filmmakers worked close with the estates of Brando and Olivier. Although supposedly Disney did as well with the Cushing estate. Honestly given his attitude towards other aspects of filmmaking and how the reason he even did “Star Wars” to begin with was to stay current with the younger audiences it seems likely he would have been onboard with this sort of thing. He was even quoted later in life saying that the only regret he had about “Star Wars” was that he died in “A Hope New” thus couldn’t be in any of the sequels. Although we can never truly know and for that reason there are some who feel that even if the actor’s estate is okay with it, it still doesn’t matter as the actor can’t truly give his blessing. For that reason unless they state otherwise in their will or react negatively towards it in their lifetime, I’m okay with it. For example, they made a robot of Phillip K Dick. Now I’m sure he never thought to mention before he died, but given that most of his famous books deal directly with the concept of human vs android and warning us against letting technology get out of hand, it just feels like a big middle finger to make him the face of that android.
So what are the positives of this process? Well in the case of Gran Moff Tarkin I thought it gave Peter Cushing a nice little tribute. I never got the chance to see a new Peter Cushing film in the theaters so this is the closest I’ll ever get and that was so cool for me. Now some would argue that it doesn’t count at all as it’s more than just the actor’s likeness and vocal impression that makes a performance. I doubt anyone would have found “CGIing” Heath Ledger’s Joker in a “Dark Knight” sequel would be equal to his actual performance. And yes I don’t know if this technique would work if you wanted to have say Gregory Peck be the lead in your film made in 2017. But for a small part like Tarkin, that really gives him a nice little final curtain bow. I thought they captured not only his character, but Cushing’s style in general as an actor. He knows he’s smarter than everyone else and when the film’s actual main villain tries yelling at him he’s completely unconcerned with it. Letting younger audiences experience this was just so much fun and heartwarming. On the flip side in the making of of “Rogue One” they did get an actual working actor to act through the scene. We’ve been debating for years if what the motion capture actors do is justified in getting the same recognition as regular actors. Is this really any different than CGIing Andy Serkis to look like a super intelligent ape or malnourished ring addict when the motion capture actor is still guiding the performance? I honestly don’t have an answer and leave it to you to think on.
Now can this be misused, of course. For me it comes down to HOW it is used. To put it simply is it for a tribute or is to exploit the image? Because I can tell you I’ve seen films where they didn’t have CGI at their disposal, but they sure did make it an uncomfortable viewing experience. A good example of this would be Bruce Lee in “Game of Death.” Lee sadly passed away after having completed only a few fight scenes. Their only way to get past this was to redo the story and use a double for a majority of the film. They do all sorts of things including using a paper cut out of Bruce’s face on a mirror and EVEN NEWREEL FOOTAGE FROM HIS REAL FUNERAL!!! That’s crossing a major line for me. What’s more is this kicked off a trend known as “Bruceploitation” which I think you can guess from the title as to what that entails. Honestly “Game of Death” was bad enough that I have no intention of seeing any of them. I know I’ll miss out on classics like “The Clones of Bruce Lee” and “Bruce Lee Fights Back From Beyond the Grave” and before you ask YES those are REAL movies. So exploiting the image can be agreed as bad. So what about that Audrey Hepburn chocolate commercial from 2014? That doesn’t bother me as much more so because it’s always exploitation to a degree when a famous actor does a commercial or any marketing I suppose. The makers are trading on the celebrity’s… celebrity to sell the merchandise. All I’ll say on the commercial is it looks a lot more convincing than Leia did in “Rogue One.”
Now apparently Disney has made a statement saying that they have no plans to use the technique to keep Carrie Fisher “alive” in the sequels. Probably not much of an issue for “Episode VIII” as it’s most likely that she finished all of her scenes prior to her death. Now how this will affect “Episode IX” remains to be seen. (Personally I’m more concerned with how the major weight loss they imposed on her may or may not have contributed to her untimely death.) I’ll have to see the films to pass judgement on what they should have done. In theory if it was to provide a more definitive end for the character then I can see myself being in favor of it. Again, it all depends on the execution of the idea. This is the sort of thing that the only way this will get better and more realistic is if we keep trying and experimenting. Remember “Tron” or “The Last Starfighter” and compare that to the CGI in say, “Ex Machina.” There’s no doubt that we’re closer than not to this becoming indistinguishable from reality, but like any other tool it always depends on who is holding it.