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Feature FilmIdeas/CommentaryVFX

The Debate About Digitally Resurrecting Dead Actors is Interesting, But It’s Not New

What did you think of the digital Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One? It has certainly generated much debate about cg humans in films, the merits of resurrecting dead celebrities, and the ethics of such a practice.

Right now, the Rogue One filmmakers, including Industrial Light & Magic, the visual effects studio behind the work, is being quiet about how the digital human vfx was done. They say they will be able to discuss it more in January.

For people who haven’t seen the new film (are there any of you out there?), Tarkin has a major role in orchestrating the deadly power of the Death Star. He was played by Peter Cushing in A New Hope in 1977. Cushing died in 1994.

Which means ILM had to work all of its ‘magic’ to bring him to life for Rogue One. We don’t know exactly how they did it yet, but in recent years the studio has ramped up its digital character pipeline (Hulk in the Avengers films, Maz in The Force Awakens) and you can be sure they’ve ramped it up even further here. There are also several reports that actor Guy Henry stood in for the character during filming.

Whether you think the cg was successful or not (like any digital characters, many people have weighed in on the ‘Uncanny Valley’ phenomenon), it’s a landmark effort in visual effects, if only because Tarkin is such a major character.

But, it’s certainly not the first time a deceased actor has been resurrected to appear on screen.

One of the methods used by Weta Digital to complete Paul Walker's performance in Furious 7, after the actor had died during filming.
One of the methods used by Weta Digital to complete Paul Walker’s performance in “Furious 7,” after the actor had died during filming.

When Paul Walker died during the filming of Furious 7, Weta Digital took on the role of respectfully completing his role. They did this with the help of past footage, new shoots featuring his siblings, and a tried and trusted cg approach that the studio has been mastering on many projects.

Similarly, when Oliver Reed passed away while making Gladiator, past takes were stitched together to finish his performance. The same thing happened with Brandon Lee on The Crow.

Rhythm & Hues re-imagined footage of Marlon Brando as Jor-El for Superman Returns. Framestore re-created a digital Audrey Hepburn for a Galaxy chocolate ad.

There are actually countless other examples, many springing up with the advent of digital visual effects – which allows for clever compositing as well as completely synthetic photorealistic cg re-creations of these actors, with or without detailed scan and reference data.

What’s also not particularly new is the discussion about the legality of it all. In a series of papers on these issues, Joseph J. Beard, a professor at St. John’s University School of Law, went through much of the debate. This was in 2001.

The legal issues are many and varied, and can fall under several areas such as copyright, contractual dealings, and the laws of estates and probate. That’s even before we get to the ethical or moral rights considerations about whether Peter Cushing would have wanted to be in another Star Wars film.

And this is even before we talk about the digital re-creation of actors who are still around, either by taking their current performance or ageing or de-ageing them – things that have been done incredibly successfully in recent times.

But again, even this is not necessarily a new consideration. ILM itself famously re-used the digital likeness of actor Robert Patrick it made for Terminator 2: Judgment Day for a scene of a digital lawyer being chomped on in Jurassic Park, and again for Spawn. And right at the end of Rogue One, of course, the very much alive actress Carrie Fisher finds her way onto the screen looking 40 years younger.

In the end, perhaps what’s most on people’s minds is whether we are there yet – can visual effects actually bring to life a deceased actor for a sustained major role? Should we?

These are things that will probably keep being debated for a long time.

  • J-K

    First mistake is that they gave Tarkin too much screen time. Some shots looked pretty great but they couldn’t maintain it if he had too much dialogue. In a few parts the mouth moved very unnaturally. Overall though it was pretty impressive.

    The best digital face touch up so far was young Michael Douglas in Ant-Man…that was incredible! Of course, he’s still with us though.

    • tazzman

      I agree Tarkin had too much screen time. That was also a story flaw in my opinion as well as it took away from Krennic. His back turned to camera and side views were great or when he was just standing there. But when he spoke continuously, it just looked off.

      The Ant Man Douglas was a bit different though in that he was done by the masters of Lola using his own footage and then deaged with CG rather than an entire CG head/body like Tarkin, Benjamin Button, etc. It’s one reason I prefer Lola’s approach though. They are using the actual actors and then digitally deaging that footage rather than going full blown CG head,body, etc. I think the results speak for themselves.

      Compare the CG Leia with the digitally enhanced(dehanced? :p) Douglas you mentioned. Which one is more successful? I think it is obvious.

    • matt

      I agree. When the character was featured in short cuts it looked good. When we have a view on the character for prolonged dialogue it began to look odd. There was one scene in particular that grabbed my attention for the wrong reasons, the mouth and facial movements began to look stiff and as you put, unnatural. It looked like the character was also wearing a neck brace he was so stiff and ridged

  • tazzman

    I agree a cameo would be necessary for Tarkin. But his role overshadowed that of Krennic for this film to the detriment of the latter.

    • Memorian

      It did unfortunately ….. but it was cool >.<

  • Tre

    The Audrey Hepburn advert was impressive at first, but after several years of seeing it, (some channels even showing it during every ad break) I wish it would just go away.

    • LarryBundyJr

      Ah phew, I thought it was just me who thought that.

      Seen the advert so many times, I’ve not touched a Galaxy bar in years as it reminds me of that bloody advert!!!

  • I think this is actually going to turn into a situation where we’ll have completely fictional personas as future actors/actresses. Complete with social media accounts managed by a team of moderately paid employees. Something that would be far cheaper than hiring an A-list talent, just create one. You’ll still be able to create the social drama for them that keeps fans engaged, but have absolute control over every interaction and every opinion they have.

    • GW

      I see how that will probably happen. But it won’t stop there. There will be people taunting us to improve humanity with virtual humanoids that are better than us. They’ll be the televangelists and weight loss ads of the future. They’ll taunt us with things like improved eyesight, increased intelligence, and emotional self control.

    • rapinii

      That sounds like a Black Mirror episode.

  • Rob Peters

    Now if they can redo the prequels with a different Anikan Skywalker I will be thrilled.

    • EdT

      I think Hayden Christensen was unfairly blamed for poor direction and a very bad script. Who was portrayed well in the prequels? Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan?Liam Neeson playing Qui-Gonn Jinn? Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala? All of these characters had a lot of bad lines and stupid plot points. All of them ARE good actors. The role essentially destroyed the careers of both of the unknown actors who played Anakin, Jake Loyd and Hayden. The other actors had a body of work to fall back on, Jake and Hayden only had their work in the prequels. Yes it was bad, but given that experienced Oscar winning actors also sounded wooden and said and acted in a way that made very little sense I can’t heap all of the blame on them. If you want to blame someone blame the writer/director of Howard the Duck.

  • feast for

    So the question is really about Sir Alec Guiness and Obi Wan, the same applies but we know he wouldn’t like it.

  • StephaneDumas

    I still enjoy watching that Ford Mustang ad with a recreated Steve McQueen. :-)
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UZzXHq7gKN8

  • Cédric Villain

    Remember The Congress, © Ari Folman

  • Adrian C.

    While no one can ever say with absolute certainty whether or not Peter Cushing would have wanted to be in another Star Wars film (although he supposedly enjoyed his experience on “A New Hope”), Lucasfilm did get permission from his estate even though, technically, they may have not been legally required to do so. Unfortunately, I can’t find the article in which I read this so I don’t have a link.

    This whole discussion reminds me of when they used a digital younger version of Jeff Bridges in “Tron: Legacy.” Admittedly, that situation is more akin to the use of Carrie Fisher’s likeness in “Rogue One” but it still prompted people to weigh in on this use of special effects. Of course, the discussion on this is much more widespread.

  • Mister Twister

    I will accept it if done for the right reason, the right way, and for a GOOD movie.

  • I recall they used digitally manipulated stock footage to resurrect Sir Laurence Olivier as the villain in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow as well. That may be the first instance I remember of a post humous performance in fact. It made sense in context to the film though.

  • EdT

    Given the storyline of the original Star Wars, I think it would have been difficult to avoid Governor Tarkin in this film. You can argue about the amount of screen time, and how it was presented, but I don’t think any method of using him would have made everyone happy, and this includes using him primarily in holographic communiques.

    A bigger question is who owns the ‘rights’ for a deceased actor’s performance. The family? A studio which made the original film? Disney chose to get permission from Peter Cushing’s estate but there doesn’t seem to be any actual legal requirement to do so. Does a studio own the voice and image of a character? And for how long? We’ve already seen how studios are trying to extend copyrights for characters and properties essentially forever in animation. Are live action characters about to be treated the same?

  • Maggie

    I have no qualms with using an actors image if he/she signed up for the film but died in an untimely fashion – they had consented to doing the role.

    As for Rogue One’s use of CGI – I just don’t understand why they couldn’t hire actors who may look similar and add makeup. That’s what we *use* to do. We all KNOW those characters aren’t around to play themselves – why fall back on CGI when there are perfectly good people alive and well who could be given a chance to get their foot in the door by acting the part? Why do computers have to do this unnecessary heavy lifting? I guess ultimately I’m biased in this regard because I’m a die-hard practical effects kind of gal…

    But of all the issues discussed here, what bothered me the greatest was using Audrey Hepburn’s image and name for nothing but pure, vapid commercialism. I understand that her name must’ve been trademarked and therefore exchanged between corporate entities, but I think it’s disgusting. Pick your favorite deceased celebrity and imagine them “coming back to life” just to sell an iphone, car, chocolate… It’s ridiculous, offensive, and unnecessary. God forbid we allow new, young, living talent to make their mark. But that’s a whole other argument.

    • Taco

      Very well said Maggie! Dear Hollywood, please endeavor to use practical effects, animatronics & real people first wherever possible in your films, especially for close ups & “the acting”. CGI is there as a clever aid for filling in the gaps, world-building & those big broad “Movie-Magic™” scenes that cost the big buck$. Don’t use it to simply Frankenstein a CGI Peter Cushing to converse with living actors for 3 minutes. And please please please stop moving the bloody camera constantly! Or cutting to another pointlessly different angle of the same scene Repeated Ad Nauseam. Maybe if you didn’t move the camera or constantly rack focus, you would have the screen time to think visually about a good &/or meaningful composition that could define your shot or story visually.

    • Bobby Bickert

      That Audrey Hepburn ad is nowhere near as bad as her Funny Face co-star Fred Astaire being “resurrected” to sell Dirt Devil vacuums, or Gene Kelly’s “Singin’ in the Rain” musical number being mutilated to sell (modern) Volkswagens. At least Audrey liked chocolate.

  • J Roy

    Now, unfortunately, for die-hard Star Wars fans, it has become a necessity with Carrie Fischer gone :(

  • Ga5ton

    ”These are things that will probably keep being debated for a long time.”

    I couldn’t agree more with that, this debate seems like something that would keep on going for decades and will probably just get more intense.
    I don’t really have a problem with finishing a movie this way if the actor passed away in the middle of it, but what really worries is resurrecting them for your own interest. I mean, of course we’re still fram from it, but can you imagine when people want to start making movies with casts that are completely digital? Technology may get to a point when it’s so advanced that it may be completely believable and cheaper than hiring real actors. I know that sounds unlikely and kinda stupid, but it sickens me to think of a world where they can make a movie like Secretariat in Bojack Horseman, and there is people who even seem to root for AI to take over.