The overall improvement of visual effects over the last few years has been nothing short of astounding. Even just a few decades ago, artificially creating something as simple as water would have been an unimaginably daunting task, let alone making it look real. Nowadays, visual effects artists are able to create photorealistic replicas of animals and detailed landscapes, even possessing the ability to simulate the intricate details of the human body. Take Alita: Battle Angel, for example, in which the titular character is completely computer-generated, despite looking and feeling almost unnervingly human. She somehow seamlessly blends in with the rest of her human cast members, carrying the same vivid expressions and subtle nuances that are so characteristic of people. Such an achievement in creating an artificial, yet tangible protagonist was bound to receive high praise. But Alita was a fictional character. The digital recreation of real, once-alive actors is a completely different story.
Let’s take a look at Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, a direct prequel to the 1978 classic Star Wars: A New Hope. In this film, Peter Cushing, who plays Grand Moff Tarkin, is somehow present, despite having passed away back in 1994, nearly 22 years prior to the movie’s release. How? Well, it’s not as simple as you might think.
The studio’s first step was to find someone that not only looked somewhat like Cushing, but also sounded like him, ultimately settling with actor Guy Henry as the base of their CG Tarkin. Once the vfx team had a scan of Henry’s real and digitally replicated face, they needed to find a reference for Cushing’s face. As previously mentioned, A New Hope was filmed in 1978, when CGI was still sparingly used. Not only that but the filming equipment used in the ‘70s was far less advanced, removing the reuse of footage from the film as a viable option. However, fortunately for Lucasfilms, a life-like plaster of Cushing’s head from the ‘80s existed that the visual effects team could use for a digital scan. Now that they had digital replicas of both Henry and Cushing, all the team had to do was merge the two scans into one face that, under clever lighting and well-placed shots, looked almost indistinguishable from Peter Cushing’s real appearance. And while visual effects artists and filmmakers all over the world praised the film for its ability to create such a true-to-life image, fans weren’t so happy with CG Tarkin.
Don’t be mistaken, the CGI for Rogue One was phenomenal, and that certainly was not what fans were concerned about. What was concerning for many fans was the fact that Cushing was in the film, despite it being impossible for him to have given consent to his inclusion. Viewers called into question the ethics behind showing Cushing’s face in a film he didn’t even know he was going to be in, let alone play a major part in as a villain. Princess Leia, played by Carrie Fisher, also made a cameo appearance in this film, digitally made to look like her younger self, but Fisher had already seen and approved of her appearance in the movie prior to her untimely death in 2016.
And while this article has only covered Star Wars, actors being revived through visual effects is certainly not limited to the franchise. There have been numerous cases of this type of “resurrection”: Paul Walker in Furious 7, Oliver Reed in Gladiator, Philip Seymour Hoffman in The Hunger Games, and the list goes on. However, what makes Cushing’s case so controversial is the simple fact that Cushing did not and, perhaps more importantly, could not approve of the usage of his appearance.
The debate on whether Cushing should or shouldn’t have appeared in Rogue One is a complicated one that still does not have a definite consensus. But it ultimately boils down to one fundamental question: does the ownership of a character belong to the actor or the studio? Yes, the appearance of Grand Moff Tarkin is in fact that of Peter Cushing’s, but the character himself belongs to Lucasfilms and the Star Wars franchise. On one hand, it seems reasonable that a company is able to use its characters the way it wants, while on the other, it also makes sense that an actor would want some control over where his or her face appears.
As such digital recreation of actors becomes increasingly easier and refined, this question only becomes more relevant. Sooner or later, the average viewer won’t be able to distinguish between the real and replicated. Even now, with the development of deepfakes, actors and actresses’ faces can be pasted onto a different body almost perfectly, and it doesn’t take a whole team of visual artists to do it. And while the use of vfx in Tarkin’s case wasn’t at all harmful, deepfakes can certainly be used with a more malicious intent as evident in the various forms of pornography stemming from its usage.
We live in an era in which visual effects have become far more than simply visual, and virtual realities have become indistinguishable from our own reality. The line between what’s real and what’s not is only becoming hazier, and the issues regarding character ownership are more pressing than ever. Computer-generated imagery has taken massive leaps in recent years, and if we are to prevent ourselves from losing our footing, we must find clear resolutions to such ethical dilemmas.