Digital Necromancy: How CGI is bringing back dead actors to the screen
Death, once the definitive end to an actor’s career, is now only a passage to a digital afterlife. As computer-generated imagery (CGI) becomes easier and more sophisticated, film corporations are able to convincingly recreate dead celebrities, or “delebs” as they’re called, and give them extended roles.
Departed music icons too, are finding their way back to the stage, as holograms, sometimes with a live backing group of former bandmates — and they’re even all going on tour together. But more on that later.
The latest in a growing line of celebrities resurrected from the dead, is one of Hollywood’s most iconic — the 1950s star, James Dean.
Dean was 24 when he died in a car crash; 65 years later, in 2019, he was cast as the second lead in Finding Jack, a film set in the early 1970s, towards the end of the Vietnam War, and set for release at the end of this year.
A LASTING IMPRESSION
It’s been possible to resurrect someone effectively on film since about the early 1990s. But it was so difficult, time consuming and expensive, that it was done in tiny bursts, for novelty value.
And so US President John F Kennedy was brought to life using spliced footage, for a cameo of a few seconds in Forrest Gump (1994); Audrey Hepburn returned in a commercial for Galaxy chocolate in 2013, 20 years after her death. And Bruce Lee was brought back from the dead to promote scotch by Johnnie Walker — which caused a huge uproar, since Lee had been a teetotaller all his life.
The casting of James Dean has been met with even stronger criticism, from fans and members of the Hollywood fraternity. Actor Chris Evans (Captain America) tweeted, “This is awful. Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes.” Elijah Wood of The Lord of the Rings movies added “…This shouldn’t be a thing.”
BEHIND THE SCENES
US state laws allow famous people to pass along the rights to their image as part of their estates, and so we get to the point where willing suspension of disbelief takes on a whole new meaning.
“It really began to pick up pace in the early 2000s. During the production of Gladiator, Oliver Reed died during filming and a digital face had to be pasted on a body double, so they could finish shooting the film,” says cinematographer and VFX artist Dheeraj Chetia.
The biggest challenge was getting the lip-syncing for the dialogue right. “Now, you can archive infinite facial expressions and emotions, under different lighting conditions, and so digital resurrection has become more precise and looks and sounds much more authentic,” says Chetia.
A complex scene can still take up to a year to perfect. But with new technology, old footage and a body double, it is possible to do it so you can barely tell the difference.
So, when Peter Cushing’s role as a villain in Star Wars was being revisited in Rogue One (2016), he was resurrected using CGI, over two decades after his death. In Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019), Carrie Fisher, who had died of a heart attack in 2016, was digitally resurrected using a body double and footage from Return of the Jedi (1983). The same thing was done for Rogue One, while Fisher was still alive, because they needed to flash back to when she was much younger.
“We call this the uncanny valley, as one gets closer and closer to realistically animating a human,” says Shajy Thomas, head of technology at Technicolor. This studio in Bengaluru within whose campus MPC Flim, the British visual effects company worked together with their global counterparts to recreate a young Sean Young, for the role of Rachel in the 2017 film, Blade Runner 2049. Young is still alive, but they needed her to look, in the new film, as she had when she first played the character in 1982. Technicolor also helped de-age Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator: Genisys, which was released in 2015.
Getting the person to stand, move and fight is not so hard. It’s the last 20% that is the hardest to achieve, Thomas says. “The moment when the digital human has to curl their lips or blink an eye that takes real expertise,” he adds. To achieve life-like similarities, sophisticated technology is used in various processes to create hyper-realistic movements and expressions. “The devil really is in the detail and it’s the technology that helps us recreate that sort of ‘photo-realism’ that is improving now.”
LIFE AFTER LIFE
Soon after Magic City Films announced the James Dean casting, a newly formed IP licensing firm called WorldWide XR announced that it holds the rights to digitally resurrect more than 400 deceased celebrities. They include Burt Reynolds, Maya Angelou, Malcolm X, Chuck Berry, Josephine Baker and Neil Armstrong. As company CEO Travis Cloyd put it: “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”
Digital recreations of singer-songwriter Roy Orbison and opera legend Maria Callas have gone on tour in 2018. Orbison even performed with fellow Texan, Buddy Holly, who died in 1959, and the two holograms then went on tour across North America, Europe and the UK. Apparently, Orbison’s is so rich in detail, you can almost see the fringe on his jacket move. So much for rest in peace.