When Paul Walker died tragically before the completion of the seventh Fast and Furious film, Universal called upon his brothers to step in in order to finish some of Paul’s final scenes. With a little help from some deft computer graphics work, the film was able to close out Brian O’Connor’s story in the franchise with a touching tribute. While not a perfect representation of Walker, the goodbye was real enough to give the beloved actor a proper send off from the series.
Using CGI to portray actors is not an entirely new practice, but as animators edge closer and closer toward perfecting the emulation of life onscreen, these CGI performances are becoming more and more common. Peter Cushing lent his likeness as the classically cold Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One despite passing in 1994. The character was painstakingly animated with an undeniable intention to respect the gravitas of Cushing’s original performance. Every wrinkle, freckle and scar was scanned from a casting of Cushing’s face that was made for a previous role, and the end result is a startlingly true-to-life depiction of Tarkin on screen.
Issues of CGI-only actors
The use of CGI performances for deceased actors comes with a number of issues both technological and ethical
that keep it from being a perfect way to preserve the characters we love and reuse them as our sequel-hungry film culture demands. While nearly true to life, these CGI performances are still digital objects. They may look fantastic, but the human eye still recognizes the fake. With Tarkin there was just enough artificiality remaining to remind the audience that this character is not actually Peter Cushing. Watching Rogue One I was excited to see him onscreen, but I had to take a second to reengage with the film. I was conscious of the fact that a digital object was interacting with characters in the physical world. This isn’t a new conceit that audiences are asked to make. Digital characters have appeared onscreen alongside real ones since Gene Kelly danced with Jerry Mouse, but it is much easier to suspend your disbelief with a cartoon mouse than it can be when a film attempts to pass off a digital character as a real human.
These performances also come with a rocky ethical conundrum when it comes to permission. Artists often sign over the rights to their work to family or friends after their death. Those in control of an artist’s estate have the power to decide what happens to that person’s art or likeness and who has permission to use it. In most situations those in control of an artist’s estate are happy to allow the deceased to appear on screen and continue entertaining fans even after their death, but at a certain point the question arises of just what kind of projects the deceased would be willing to appear in and which projects they would not. In the case of Rogue One, it is easy to assume that Peter Cushing would relish the chance to return as Grand Moff Tarkin. The character is pivotal to the series and beloved by fans, so it was touching in a way to see him again.
In other cases you have to imagine that the artist wouldn’t want their image to be tossed around for profit. Audrey Hepburn appeared posthumously in an ad for Dove chocolate. While her appearance was brief, respectful and largely benign, we will never know if Hepburn would have given her consent to appear in the ad.
As technology continues to provide more accurate digital representations of beloved actors there has to come a time when the practice becomes overplayed and stops being a tribute becoming instead, a crutch. As an audience we latch on to the actors and artists we love. When they pass, the idea of never seeing them perform again is heartbreaking. If the long list of celebrities lost in the past year can impart a single lesson, maybe it is that we should enjoy the work of those we idolize and remember what they gave us in their lifetime. Instead of artificially tossing around their image, maybe it is better to remember and then simply let go.