Rest in peace and in profit: Is the CGI resurrection trend here to stay?

James Dean’s recent casting raises questions over the ethics and legality of digitally exhuming dead celebrities.

Words and interviews

Michaela Barton


In his 1915 novel ‘Si Gira’, Italian dramatist Luigi Pirandello wrote that, “The film actor feels as if in exile – exiled not only from the stage but also from himself…The projector will play with his shadow before the public.”

Pirandello was one of many skeptics who questioned technology’s ability to present dramatic art at the same standard of live theatre. For all that cinema has evolved as an artform, it could be argued that actors are still limited in film, their performative autonomy hindered by the restrictive lenses of cameras and manipulation of edits. However, depending on their relationship with the director, actors do still hold a certain level of authority over their performance – they are generally free to interpret their character, conceive their own behavioural tics and perform their lines in ways only they could.

Pirandello’s critique of what he saw as inorganic performances in film could be viewed simply as resistance to change, a reaction that surfaces with every new technological innovation. Yet his concerns feel remarkably apt in light of Hollywood’s current ethical and existential crisis.

Despite dying more than 60 years ago, James Dean’s career has taken a surprising move. Directors Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh are adapting Gareth Crocker’s Vietnam war novel, ‘Finding Jack’, and apparently regard Dean as the best actor for the job. Thanks to advances in computer generated imagery, visual effects and animation studio Image Engine are able to recreate Dean from archive footage and generate an entirely new performance for him. Although Dean won’t be leading the film, he’s said to be playing a large and integral part as one of the main cast.

The “resurrection” of popular dead figures is certainly not a new development. Previously, the main tactic for achieving this was limited by archival material, with living actors digitally inserted into old footage to give the appearance of an interaction that never actually occurred (for instance, Tom Hanks meeting President Kennedy in Forrest Gump). However, it’s now possible to create a new performance by digitally inserting the face of one onto a body double (as was seen in Galaxy’s advert starring Audrey Hepburn).

Explaining the process that goes into creating a digital facsimile, visual effects executive producer and general manager of Image Engine, Shawn Walsh, says, “There are sophisticated digital techniques that artists use in addition to extensive data acquisition to then bring the digital double to life.” According to Walsh, capturing someone’s essence is down to far more than just their appearance; artists must study archive footage of their subject, looking at how they move, how they hold themselves, how they emote. “If successful,” says Walsh, “the end result is that the viewer won’t know there is any visual effects involved at all.”

One of the first digital posthumous acting credits to come from a major film studio is Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin in Rogue One, arriving 22 years after his death in 1994. The public reaction to this decision from Lucasfilm were varied, with some questioning the ethics of reanimating a deceased actor.

Obviously, gaining consent from a dead actor is impossible, and the idea of commandeering their likeness to star in a project they may have had no interest in feels a little dubious. Dr Lisa Bode, a lecturer in Film and TV Studies at The University of Queensland, has studied the ethics of “resurrecting” actors extensively. Comparing Dean’s role in Finding Jack with Cushing’s in Rogue One, Bode tells LWLies, “There is a huge difference between using the technology to bring an actor’s final work to the screen, and resurrecting their image for a new role. We can safely assume that the actor would have wanted their final work seen.”

However, in the case of an entirely new role for an actor who cannot show interest in participating, this is where novelty turns sinister. As things stand, the legality of acquiring the rights to a dead actor’s image is granted through their estate or trust; or the time being, studios need only seek permission from an actor’s living relatives. CMG Worldwide, an agency that specialises in representing dead celebrities are the ones responsible for selling Dean’s image rights for Finding Jack. When discussing their recent business decision with The Hollywood Reporter, CEO Mark Roesler said, “This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us.”

With the potential for these casting decisions to become more common, the question now is how entertainment and trust laws will change to cover these disputes. Already some actors are having to consider the use of their identity after death, with Robin Williams writing a clause into his will banning the use of his voice and image in advertising and any future films for the next 25 years. Although it has been suggested that this transference of Williams’ identity rights over to the non-profit Windfall Foundation was simply to avoid further taxes from publicity, this legal decision still protects Williams’ image from being “resurrected” for any roles until 2039. Whether or not his wishes will continue to be respected after this date is unclear.

The decision to “puppeteer” actors even after death ultimately comes down to ownership. Does a famous person sacrifice their right to autonomy as soon as they appear in the public eye? As Bode observes, “Technology allows the actor’s image to function as a kind of public property with which anyone can play, but legally it still belongs to them as personal property.” However, perhaps they now belong to the screen, as Pirandello feared back in 1915. While the media and fans frequently overstep the bounds of celebrities’ basic right to privacy, the race to own and control the identity of dead movie stars signals a problematic power struggle. Actors are more than puppets, jerked around to amuse a crowd.

Yet even when an actor signs away the rights to their image upon death, technology still cannot bring them back. With faces being plucked from history and pasted into new roles, it is not these actors’ talent that we get to relive but simply their appearance. They no longer have the freedom to approach a character how they wish – it is the director and effects team that control and manipulate the shadow of their essence. As Bode points out, “We can’t have James Dean back from the dead. All we can have is a digitally enhanced ossified impersonation of an actor frozen in a particular acting style from the 1950s.”

There isn’t a shortage of talented actors out there who still have a pulse, but it would seem that a more easily manipulated acting tool may ultimately be preferable to a conscious, autonomous collaborator. Is there any value to digitally exhuming an actor other than nostalgia? The different experiences and perspectives actors bring has always been a fundamental aspect of this artform – without it, the very essence of cinema changes. As a feat of technical skill and showmanship, a performance by a CGI actor can be convincing and even impressive. But it will never replace the real thing.

Published 21 Nov 2019

Tags: James Dean

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