Digitally resurrecting celebrities from the dead for cinema


EXCERPT: . . . Peter Cushing’s performance in 2016’s *Rogue One: A Star Wars Story* is remarkable because Cushing died in 1994. Industrial Light & Magic’s computer-generated imagery (CGI) wizards digitally resurrected Cushing to once again portray the villainous Imperial Grand Moff Tarkin, a central antagonist of the original 1977 Star Wars, in which the character brutally orders the destruction of Princess Leia’s home planet of Alderaan. Recreating Cushing for Rogue One was experimental in two senses: Disney was testing out both the technology and audiences’ reactions to it.

[...] Digital resurrection raises broader questions than simply whether this or that CGI revenant was respectful to the dead and artistically effective. A few recent instances are hard to fault. For example, films featuring actors who died during production have recreated the dead actors’ likenesses to finish the film. Screenwriter Chris Morgan rewrote the fate of Paul Walker’s character in *Furious 7* after the actor’s death, with Walker’s brothers standing in for him to film additional material that served as a farewell and tribute to Walker. Weta Digital handled modeling Walker’s face and superimposing it on his brothers. Fans of the *Fast and the Furious* franchise found the send-off for Walker touching. But obviously, in this case, the filmmakers used the technology out of what they felt was necessity.

[...] The resulting digital resurrection seems universally described with the word “uncanny” — either as praise for its uncannily lifelike quality or as a criticism of its falling in the “uncanny valley.” The uncanny valley is the phenomenon in which things that appear very nearly but not entirely human seem strange and creepy. It’s an ongoing obstacle in fields like robotics and computer animation, or anywhere that people try to build lifelike human simulacra. Some point to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as the first description of the uncanny valley, as Frankenstein expresses his revulsion toward the creature he created [...]

Perhaps the modern Promethei of the CGI world will follow the example of Cushing’s indefatigable Dr. Frankenstein and keep creating creatures in the hope of bridging the uncanny valley. But a world in which dead actors mingle seamlessly onscreen with living ones, though it may sound exciting, denigrates the craft of acting. Acting is the art of presence. A digital resurrection, however well-intentioned or well-executed, has at its heart an absence....

I wouldn't call that a resurrection, as it was still obviously CG. Marvel has done a much better job...but only de-aging living actors.

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