The technology behind filmmaking has evolved beyond the point of return for better or for worse. In fact, directing legends Martin Scorsese and Ridley Scott have even been quoted as saying “the movies are dead,” solidifying, for some, a future of franchise fatigue and endless CGI blockbusters. Advancement in computer graphics has also brought about the ability to stretch the limits of reality and, in the case of films like the recent “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” revive actors from the dead raising inquiry about the ethics of CGI performances.
With the dust having settled after the release of another box office shattering “Star Wars” movie, a takeaway for fans has been the recreation of long dead British thespian Peter Cushing in his role as Grand Moff Tarkin. The technology behind Cushing’s posthumous performance is a more polished version of the same effects used to complete the movie “Furious 7” after the death of Paul Walker in 2013.
In essence, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) studied the performance of Cushing in 1977’s “Star Wars” and used facial tracking to insert a digital Cushing on top of the body and performance of an on set stand in. Additionally, Carrie Fisher made a digital cameo as young Princess Leia mere weeks before her death.
While Fisher gave her seal of approval on Leia and the family of Cushing thought his resurrection to be a respectful homage to a talented actor, less subtle instances of CGI performances have agitated audiences.
A 2010 Volkswagen commercial portrayed Gene Kelly popping and locking to a hip hop version of “Singing in the Rain,” one of his most notable works. Considered tactless and disrespectful, the company was bombarded by upset fans. A simple glance at the YouTube comment section exemplifies the disdain some have for the commercial.
“I sort of get the CG character in ‘Rogue One’ because he’s part of the story, but using an actor to sell a product is kind of disrespectful.”
The primary difference between the cases of Cushing and Kelly however, is the intent behind the use of their likenesses. The moral ambiguity behind Cushing’s role is cleared up, to a degree, when considering the studio’s reasoning. To paraphrase George Lucas, the father of ILM, special effects are a means to tell a story and, to a large group of a fans, the story behind “Rogue One” is justification enough for bringing to life a necessary character.
In the case of Kelly, the anger stems from his image being “slandered” to sell a product. Similar cases have occurred with dead celebrities like Audrey Hepburn’s appearance in a chocolate commercial.
For Okerwall, the issue behind “Rogue One” had more to do with the digital character stripping away a sense of realism.
At the 89th Academy Awards, “Rogue One” was beat out by “The Jungle Book” in the Best Visual Effects category validating Okerwall’s position. To some, the technology just hasn’t advanced enough to re-create realistic looking actors without live-action reference in the sense that “The Jungle Book” did.
The idea behind digitally altering performances has raised questions among some about how much control actors actually have in their roles. With the ability to alter small details like eyelines, it may become difficult in the coming years to weed out strong performances from digital wizardry.
Technology in film can be a useful tool, but it remains to be seen whether its use will damage the movie going experience in the future.