In Memory Of: Using CGI to Bring Back the Stars

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Photo Courtesy of the Associated Press

The iconic Hollywood star James Dean representing a part of the Golden Years is set to co-star in a Vietnam War-era film.  Soon after the studio announcement, several actors discussed their displeasure with the decision and in general the availability of deceased actors appearing in films.  This despite the Estate of Dean agreeing to allow Dean’s image to be portrayed in the film.

The dilemma presented is one that could see more action as the acceptability of the practice becomes more commonplace.  Music icons Prince and Tupac have appeared by virtual reality and CGI technology at concerts.  YouTube videos abound on the appearances.

On the one hand, the rights to appear are held by the estate/heirs of the famous or anyone for that matter.  However, the concern raised by the actors begs the question of should it be allowed.  It is amazing to thinking that technology is where it is to allow for such opportunities.  Imagine seeing a famous actor or singer like Frank Sinatra appearing in a film, television show, or concert.  Imagine Humphrey Bogart or Marilyn Monroe in the next action thriller or drama.  The possibilities are endless. 

The issues that arise with such appearances come from several places.  For one, is it respectful or appropriate to the now passed to appear in anything without having a say in the matter?  Second, from a commerce standpoint, it does create more competition.  Dean’s appearance in the Vietnam War-era film could conceivably have been cast and filled by a living actor.  In fact, the casting director and those involved with the film said as much and commented that after considering other living actors, Dean made the best fit for the co-leading part.  With Dean’s talents and history, it is hard to argue with that point. 

Nonetheless, CGI is being used in film more commonly today.  The Jerry Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise sequel Top Gun: Maverick was delayed a year to allow for the technology on jet fighter planes to upgrade before production could end.  Netflix’s The Irishman used CGI to make actors Joe Pesci, Robert DeNiro, and Al Pacino look younger for their roles in the film.

Where is the line drawn?  If history is a measure of what is to come, CGI will only increase as many things in commerce and consumption once the door in opened regardless of law or regulation.  Moviegoers will be the judge of what films to see or not see and to place a value on such appearances.    

In terms of ethics, residuals, and the like, the Guilds of Hollywood will of course have a say in the matter as will studios and heirs of rights to deceased actors.  If accomplished with dignity and respect, the likely response is that such casting will be welcomed in certain contexts, but not others.  It could very well be that deceased actor and musician (or for any other person or living thing) appearances could be rejected by the audiences as, frankly, weird or inappropriate.  The market inevitably is and will be the judge of that regardless of what the guilds, studios, and heirs decide or say. 

In the end, if there is a choice between CGI and using DNA to recreate a person or living thing, the obvious and easier option is the virtual one.  Cloning from DNA and medical advancements raises far scarier questions and concerns.  There are still concerns with CGI, ethical, if not legal ones related to rights and decency.  However, the CGI acceptance by consumers can be somewhat demonstrated by Facebook’s recent dive into the aging app and what someone would look like in the future.  The app was used by millions. 

Going forward, it will be interesting to see what other industries take up the use of CGI.  Imagine comedians like Richard Pryor and Don Rickles making appearances.  How about sports legends like Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Judge Kennesaw Mountain Landis, or past U.S. Presidents making appearances on television broadcasts giving insight into a play or policy (even if for film or parody) based on an algorithm of what the person might have said using artificial intelligence or really good writers.  Scary and exciting thoughts, indeed. 

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