Movie Magic: Resurrecting the dead

-Luuk Kuiper

The use of computer-generated imagery, or CGI for short, has been ingrained in modern film making. It has uplifted our imaginations and made it possible for the incredible things to be shown on film. Revolutionizing genres like Sci-Fi and action to be grander and more spectacular than ever. It even gave us some of the most memorable characters in modern film history. With films like Avatar (2009), the second highest grossing film ever, having CGI main characters. The power of CGI doesn’t stop at explosions, spaceships and alien races, however. We are starting to see more and more uses of CGI to bring deceased actors back to life. For example, Paul Walker’s appearance in Fast and Furious 7 three years after his death and CGI even made it possible for Peter Cushing to appear in Rogue One nearly two decades after his passing. But what exactly does this technology mean for the future of film?

The use of CGI to bring deceased actors back to the big screen is not a new practice. The first use of this technology was 25 years ago. After Brandon Lee’s tragic passing on the set of The Crow (1994) the film was finished tracking his face onto his stunt double. Making this happen was at that time a huge amount of work and thus scenes were shot in a manner where his face was obstructed most of the time. Making the final workload for the visual effects department lighter. Over time the technology behind this has been greatly improved. Making it possible for anyone with a decently powerful computer to render someone’s likeness onto others. Aspects of the technology even got adapted into the mainstream with companies like SnapChat becoming leaders in face tracking technology. Making it possible for even our phones to track our face and apps like FaceApp even being able to digitally age our faces. 

Using actor’s likenesses to finish filming or even keep someone inside a films universe after their passing is clearly not something new. People were however shocked when it was announced that James Dean would star in a film about Vietnam. Using his likeness has been greenlighted by his family, so legally everything checks out. But that didn’t stop many famous actors to speak out against the casting. James Dean won’t star as the lead, but he’ll still be a major character in the film. This performance will set a major precedent for future use of the likeness of actors. In the past, the process of replacing facing was a hard task, due to it mainly being hand tracked by animators. A very time consuming and thus expensive process. These limitations are why the technology was worked around,  for example by giving recreated actors limited screen time to reduce both the workload and the associated cost. However, with the state of modern computers, it has become possible to let computers do more and more of these very meticulous jobs, like tracking someone’s face. Moreover, this new James Dean film shows that the technology has reached a point of eficiency where studios are confident enough to cast deceased actors in major roles. And with the technology behind it still being developed further this won’t be the last time it happens too.

This has the potential to change the film industry forever. The technology undoubtedly has amazing potential. Giving filmmakers the opportunity to finish films where the actors pass away during production. Now even making films starring long passed actors. There is, however an inherent risk with this new use of the adaptation. Famed actors bring in a lot of viewers to the film theaters. Most people love seeing their favorite actor ‘surprise’ them with another outstanding performance, rather than take a risk on an obscure film with unknown actors. And this use of CGI gives filmmakers the power to make essentially an endless amount of films starring the same actors, regardless of if they are alive. Every film could be a 100% star filled cast, with even the smallest roles filled with the perfect A-list celebrity actor for the part. Making a career as an aspiring film actor is hard enough as it is. Image how hard it would be in a world where you’re competing against famous and even legendary actors like James Dean or Keanu Reeves for every role. A fight that for mainstream films is most certainly impossible. Moreover, after a hundred years what would the film industry evolve to? Would the industry just use a homogeneous actor pool filled only with those amazing actors we already know and love?