glenn criddle | cynical celluloid | feb. 2017
Back from the Dead: Dead actors and CGI doubles
Well, now that the celebpocalypse that was 2016 is done and having reviewed Rogue One last month, my mind has turned towards one of the strangest aspects of that film: Peter Cushing's performance from beyond the grave. It is a weird concept, over and above the slightly bizarre computer-generated puppet that graced the screen in all its gory glory. One thing that ultimately bounced me right out of the movie was the young Carrie Fisher's appearance in the last shot; it was horribly jarring, not awful looking per se, but weird and oddly inhuman. This was, of course, before she sadly passed away, but between this pair of actors who were not there, Cushing because he's long dead and Fisher because she was simply older, it raises serious moral questions for me about the use of such modern cinematic trickery.
Visual trickery is part and parcel of the cinematic trade, it always has been. I have few qualms about most of the use of CGI to create worlds to put the actors in, other than those of quality, and most of those are to do with the blending of the artificial with the real. CGI characters are hardly an issue either. Andy Sirkis has played so many roles now with little plastic balls stuck to his face and body, if there is any other practitioner in the acting world who demonstrates the way to do motion capture acting it's him. My personal dislike of the overuse of CG, or rather the reliance on CG rather than practical sets and effects is neither here nor there in this particular subject, it's more to do with the idea that an actor could be 'hijacked' in this way.
Like any artistic endeavor, there is an ownership to a performance that an actor should have. There's a reason why, generally speaking, we react badly when a familiar character is handed over to another actor. It's not always because they're worse, it's because that actor brought themselves to the role. If “Scarface” was remade, it wouldn't matter how good the actor who plays Tony Montana is, he'll always be in the shadow of Al Pacino. There is a value to that performer, to what they bring to the character, to how they move, how they talk and the general performance they give. This is what concerns me about this new technology. In most other fields, the idea of representing something as being what it absolutely isn't is considered fraudulent or cheap. For all its technological marvel, it is a knockoff, an imitation. If this were a painting or a book it'd likely be thought of as plagiaristic, but here it is, an imitation of an actor. As someone who works around actors all the time, I see how their decisions affect a performance, how their choices can make or break a character, it's truly an art form and a lot more difficult and involved than most would realize.
So when Peter Cushing was brought back from the dead there are a lot of things to consider including physical and vocal performance that I'm not at all comfortable with designating to anyone but a living Peter Cushing. Cushing was a remarkable and distinctive actor and I ask myself how he'd feel about something trying to pass itself off as his performance. His estate was apparently happy with it, take that for what you will, but for me there is a certain intrusion on to his personality and work that treads a very tricky moral line as this is something that, if I'm being polite, is “borrowing” his identity as a performer, not just as a character.
I can appreciate the reasons why they went this way, though there are some rather queasy ramifications for this technology. First off, is the posthumous identity of the actor. Would you want to be associated with something after your death that you had no involvement or control over? He had no say in the use of his identity here, the performance is not his, yet it's thought of as being Cushing or at least associated to him. That in its own right feels disrespectful even if this were an Oscar-winning level of re-creation, and it wasn't like this was a glance at him; there were entire scenes of performance.
Also, there are some considerations for the future of acting in general. As this technology gets cheaper and better, will this have consequences for the acting industry? Will we find films headed by dead but popular actors? The acting industry is already a very difficult thing to get into, when, at present, actors only have to compete with existing actors. Now that we are beginning to resurrect dead actors and have the technology to create any actor we could want, with perfect bodies and who will do whatever the director wants without question or thought for as many hours as you want with no extra costs or demands, then there are legitimate questions about what the future holds for hopeful actors in major films. Why take a chance on a real actor when you have a fully compliant digital Orson Welles on a hard drive waiting to perform in a film he would never have agreed to in life?
While estates may be able to control these at the moment, I wonder how long it is before those kinds of “rights” are sold like other “properties,” and we find these CG ghosts being wrung for all the cash possible with no regard for what the person would actually have wanted to be involved in.
As it is, Disney were fairly respectful with their use of Cushing's identity and they have said that the next Star Wars movie to be made will not include a CG Carrie Fisher, but I don't imagine it'll be too long before this new technology starts to be used more widely and that's when Hollywood's morality will be tested, though luckily, they've never done anything nefarious or immoral before now, have they?
He's British so forgive the extra U's and the use of the letter S instead of Z. If there's one thing that typifies Glenn's writing it's the 'Video Nasties,' a long list of movies that offended all and sunder during the 1980s in the UK. It's those seemingly offensive fringes of cinema that informed his writing on cinema and the more political area of censorship with a more sympathetic approach to those films that push the limits of taste. But don't worry, he does talk about normal stuff too and isn't likely to go off on a horror movie fuelled rampage.
For more of Glenn's work, visit cynicalcelluloid.com.