By Bruce Shutan
Remember the bold prediction a few years back that we will soon see legendary stars from Hollywood’s golden age starring in new material, thanks to the wonders of CGI technology? According to some, it could happen in less than a decade.
The motivation is easy to understand. “People find it morbidly fascinating that you might bring somebody back to life,” observes Jim Hillin, CEO of Cypress Pictures and a former board member of The Animation Guild, Local 839.
The guild’s business representative, Steve Hulett, looks at today’s technology, which can’t handle anything more than a 3-D CGI caricature, and predicts it could be six to ten years before this vision is perfected. He notes that hundreds of life masks were made of all the famous stars for make-up purposes that could be used for visualization, but beyond that, it can get tricky. CGI animators will need software that can deliver convincing impersonation as well as people’s voices.
“The biggest hurdle is that there’s a record of how these people acted in the prime of their career,” Hulett explains. “It’s a high benchmark to hit. With talking animals, toys, or robots, nobody has a daily reminder of how they act because they don’t exist.”
Hillin agrees, noting that while the technical aim is to replicate the skin, hair, and muscles of these deceased actors, the conceptual objective is to “get inside their heads.” He believes the industry is about 20 years away from accomplishing this, regardless of how much money is devoted to the effort.
While he doesn’t mind digitally recreating an actor who has passed away during filming so that critical scenes could be finished, Visual Effects Society Executive Director Tom Atkin would rather that Hollywood not tinker with its storied past. “Do I wish to see someone whose talent was wonderful recreated in a computer environment to try and replicate anything they did in human form? Absolutely not,” he exclaims. “I don’t understand the value of it.” A simple analogy comes to mind: “Sure, a computer can paint a Monet, but it’s not Monet who did the painting.”
One huge hurdle could be convincing movie executives to bring this vision to the big screen; another could be a possibly squeamish public reaction. Hulett, a former history teacher who wonders whether most kids today care about stars whose heyday was 50 or even 20 years ago, thinks that studios may deem the idea too gimmicky and not commercially viable. Also, while he can imagine CGI versions of famous deceased actors making comedic or period-piece cameos, Hulett doubts an iconic movie presence like Clark Gable, if reproduced, will be able to carry an entire movie.
The only possible exception he sees is John Wayne, “and you’ll need to get by his son, Michael Wayne,” to win licensing approval for any such recreation of the legendary tough guy, he adds. Michael Wayne, who did not return phone calls seeking comment, recently died of heart failure.
Any green light on licensing the likenesses of many of Hollywood’s yesteryear A-list would have to come from CMG Worldwide, which represents the families and estates of more than 200 deceased celebrities and corporate clients in entertainment, music, and sports.
“CMG has entertained uses such as these knowing that eventually technology may be good enough to create a Marilyn Monroe or James Dean that could play a part in a movie,” says vice chairman Beth Vahle, who’s based in the company’s Indianapolis headquarters.
Precedents have already been set. For example, Humphrey Bogart’s family allowed a digitized version of the late actor to be used in a scene from the Last Action Hero starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, released in 1993. Several years later, a virtual Bogey showed up as a video-game character.
In addition, a TV commercial for Rana Pasta digitally altered a movie clip of Marilyn Monroe so that it appeared the actress was sitting on a plane talking to the company’s CEO. Marilyn also appeared in another commercial for Visa in Europe, teaching class in a university setting with Mahatma Gandhi.
“When I walk through the studios today, I see animators wrestling with creating characters that can’t be replicated in real life,” says Hulett, citing the Star Wars franchise as an example. “I think that’s probably where the focus will be – not on trying to duplicate John Wayne.”
By Bruce Shutan