Just Dying to Appear On-Screen

As the newest entry in the Star Wars Universe, the mid-quel Rogue One had a lot of very high expectations to live up to, and many agree that it did so, with its interesting story and great acting. However, there was something that made it entirely unique as of my writing this – it has the auspicious accolade of being the first film to feature a performance from Peter Cushing since his retirement in 1986, and subsequent death in 19941, a year you may recognise as being 23 years ago. No, actors haven’t begun to rise from their graves as zombies to reprise roles, and it wasn’t just use of old, unused footage. This was an entirely new use of CGI, placing the appearance of a dead actor over the movements of a live stand-in. While this is a huge step forward in our ability to fill in for actors who die mid-filming, there are some concerning ethical ramifications about the future of actors, and indeed the very concept of acting itself.

The first and most obvious problem is that of ownership. These images no longer constitute a real person, but rather a collection of roles and characters, so who gets paid for their usage? In the case of Peter Cushing, it has been stated that his estate allowed his appearance2, but in future, there’s no doubt that there will be many a legal battle over this very idea. Does the family of the departed own the rights to their appearance like a macabre moneymaking heirloom, or do the studios own the appearances of the characters in their films, and thus the ability to use that actor, as long as they remain that character, however they wish?

Now say that an actor under contract dies during filming. Will contracts in future ensure that the studios can bypass the estate’s right to controlling the actor’s image? When an actor using this technology does an incredible job, to whom does the award go? Is it the actor under the mask, the one whose movements were used, or is it the actor whose visage was used to create the character that was integral to the greatness of the performance? A case could be made either way, or even to state that it was the work of the visual effects artists that this performance hinged upon.

This is new ground upon which the filming industry is only now beginning to tread, and it comes with a slew of entirely new and unprecedented legal and ethical ramifications3,4. If we can now have actors transcend the limits of mortality to entertain us, what’s to stop us from bringing in any actor we want to create our films? Who wouldn’t want Robert Downey Jr to live on forever as Marvel’s Iron Man, or have a young Harrison Ford to star in the upcoming Han Solo movie? But we have to be wary about this. This could well become a slippery slope, and if we aren’t careful, this could alter the face of the acting industry forever more.

A final consideration: with the recent rise of synthesized holographic performers in Japan, such as Hatsune Miku, a purely artificial projection turned one of Japan’s most popular pop-stars5, is it possible that we might soon be seeing the emergence of entirely computer-generated actors, too?

Footnotes

1. The Independent: Rogue One: Peter Cushing resurrected as Grand Moff Tarkin via CGI was impressive, but was it ethical?
2. Business Insider: This is how Star Wars original actor Peter Cushing turned up in Rogue One 22 years after he died
3. Screenrant: Should Movies Use CGI to Bring Actors Back From the Dead?
4. Movie Pilot: The CGI Grand Moff Tarkin in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ Raises Some Ethical & Moral Questions
5. Engadget: It takes a village: The rise of virtual pop star Hatsune Miku