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Editorials

Rebel Without A Pulse, Art Without A Soul?

November 21, 2019
James Dean

Recently it was announced that James Dean would be playing a lead role in “Finding Jack” a drama about a Vietnam soldier trying to rescue the dog he served with. Normally an actor being cast in a film isn’t that big news, it is their job after all. Except that James Dean has been dead for over 60 years and the film will use his “digital likeness”.

But it’s not actually going to be him though, is it? It might look like him and maybe even sound a bit like him, but it’s not going to BE him on set. Actors die during productions and need stand-ins for workarounds sometimes, but this is being billed as his fourth role. The press release mentions his family approve of the “casting” but others in the industry have been less kind. Can it work?

Dream as if you’ll live forever. Live as if you’ll die today”– James Dean

Robert Deniro in The Irishman, showing how digital effects can be used to age a person up and down (Credit: Netflix, 2019)

Unfortunately, cast and crew passing away mid-production is nothing new. When a key character dies, it can often add extra complications to a film as they may not have finished all their scenes. If most of their scenes were complete, a few rewrites and additional lines from other characters could suffice, others require more creative approaches. If their scenes were not very far along or it was a small role, they may simply be recast.

As technology and visual effects have advanced, the options available to filmmakers in this potion has grown. Recently de-ageing has become popular with films such as “Captain Marvel” and “The Irishman” allowing actors to play roles across decades. This allows them to look age-appropriate in flashbacks.

If a man can bridge the gap between life and death, if he can live on after he’s dead, then maybe he was a great man” – James Dean

A look at the process of transforming Guy Henry’s performance into Peter Cushing (Credit: Lucasfilm/Industrial Light & Magic, 2016)

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story infamously featured Peter Cushing, reprising his role as Tarkin from the original film. This process involved having an actor on set (Guy Henry) and then digitally compositing Peter Cushing’s face. It’s a similar process to deepfakes. But it’s the original actor’s choices that made the character what it is. A computer is just trying to recreate it.

Dean died in 1955, long before this idea of CG “resurrection” had ever been conceived, and as such his likeness is not protected from usage after his death. Robin Willaims restricted usage of his likeness for 25 years after his death. This practice could become more common as technology evolves. Worldwide XR, the company who owns the rights to Dean’s likeness, also owns several other deceased famous faces. This list includes Malcolm X, Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Rosa Parks. So does this mean we’ll start seeing them in films too? Well, nothing is stopping them.

To me, acting is the most logical way for people’s neuroses to manifest themselves, in this great need we all have to express ourselves” – James Dean

Hatsune Miku is a Vocaloid, a virtual popstar who sells out stadiums worldwide (Crypton Future Media)

Obviously, the whole idea of an actors face being used years after their death is a serious debate that’s only going to get louder as time goes by. But one aspect worth considering is the effect on actors currently working. It’s hard enough to have a successful acting career, but they have to worry about competing with dead ones too?

Taking this into science fiction territory, could we see films without traditional actors at all? Animation only requires actors for voices, but this technology must allow for voices to be synthesised. Could we see Orson Welles voice the villain in the next Toy Story? Could Dean win an Oscar for his role? The rules are always changing, so it wouldn’t be unheard of.

Another consideration is the rise of holograms. Recently technology has allowed musicians like Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison and Amy Winehouse to tour and perform “live” at concerts. If we can have people perform at a concert, and have them appear in a new film, could we get them to promote it too? Could a hologram appear on a talk show?

Being an actor is the loneliest thing in the world. You are all alone with your concentration and imagination, and that’s all you have” – James Dean

This is all speculation, of course, a lot can go wrong between a film being announced and it being released. Dean’s “performance” could just be a marketing ploy (despite the director’s claims). But if it does work, this “necromacting” could be just the beginning.

Also Read: Your Favourite Movies Deepfaked

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