The Virtual Actor: Hollywood’s New Leading Man
Technology’s been getting kinda crazy lately. Self-driving cars, RFID chip implants, that one backflipping robot. I finally feel like we’re starting to move into the sci-fi future the ’80s promised us. Even mundane technological developments are changing what we accept as real or not real these day. Soon even being dead may not be such a problem, at least not for actors. Soon, casting directors may not need to sign A-list actors for their next big film; they might just need a good computer. Of course, this is all thanks to the rise of virtual actors.
Certainly nothing new, virtual actors are becoming a much more common and high-profile feature of many films thanks to rapidly improving technology. Previously, when computer generated faces were used, they were typically used to change an actor’s age as was the case for Patrick Stewart in some of the X-Men films, or Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Sometimes full body CGI actors were used to fill out crowds in wide shots. Now, rather than be used as digital makeup or background extras, CG is being used for full on facial reconstruction to create virtual actors. Filmmakers are employing virtual actors at an increasing rate to actually carry scenes and deliver dialogue with.
If you’ve seen Rogue One or Furious 7, then you’ve already seen the latest iterations of virtual actors. Oh, slight spoiler alert for Rogue One and Furious 7. Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher’s likenesses were digitally imposed onto stand-in actors so they could reappear as Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, respectively. The result was that the end of 2016’s Rogue One was able to transition into the opening of 1977’s A New Hope with the same actors looking more or less the same as they did in the earlier film. Furious 7 similarly used Paul Walker’s brothers as stand-ins in several scenes, including the emotional final scene, with Walker’s likeness overlaid onto them.
I always thought virtual actors were a creepy novelty, but I recently had a change of heart. I was watching Kevin Smith’s Fatman on Batman review of the Justice League. At one point, Smith’s cohost, Marc Bernardin, suggests that Warner Bros. could use the same techniques used in Rogue One to create a super hero film where every live-action portrayal of Batman or Superman interacts onscreen. Imagine that: a digital recreation of the late Adam West alongside Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer, George Clooney, Christian Bale, and Ben Affleck. Bernardin joked that, “if we can do a half-ass fuckin’ digital moustache removal on Cavill,” then you can digitally recreate any of the actors unwilling to appear in the theoretical crossover.
That’s kind of an awesome idea. Awesome and terrifying, actually. The idea that someone’s likeness could be bought or enter into the public domain offers exciting possibilities for films while raising questions of legality. According to ABC News, “It is now standard practice for any up and coming young actor who draws the attention of a major studio to have a full body scan completed,” and kept on file by digital effects companies so that they may be used in films where the actor needs to appear younger. Others are selling their likeness to studios for use in a predetermined number of films after the actor dies. The biggest draw, however, is creating a film with an actor who died before digitally scanning was a thing. Why? Because it essentially means that there is no limit to the possibilities of casting.
However, we’re not there yet. The uncanny valley, the noticeable inhumanity of CGI faces, is still a thing. Trying to replicate a dead actor’s face without a pre-existing template isn’t easy. Thus far, with the exception of Rogue One, that sort of thing has been mostly reserved for quick and obscured shots in short scenes. There is also a hefty cost associated with any kind of CGI work in films. Right now that cost generally makes hiring actors a bit cheaper, but technology is improving. The more the technology develops, the cheaper it will be to reproduce digital likenesses. In time, as more and more actors put their assets on file, digital effects artists may be able to render entirely new actors capable of expressing a full range of emotions from scratch. The concept of a human actor could, in theory, one day be outdated. Although, not anytime soon.
In my opinion, as cool as it would be for big franchise stuff like a Batman film, it wouldn’t be very fun to see virtual actors as a norm. I mean, sure, a super comedy film with Charlie Chaplin and the Marx Brothers hanging out with Seth Rogen and Kevin Hart sounds cool, but I know it probably wouldn’t be funny. I don’t think I’d be able to laugh at a computer program pretending to improvise like a real actor. Hollywood will go where the profit is, and I’m interested to see where that is. I just don’t want to watch a bunch of digital recreations trying to cry onscreen. Besides, if we start replacing real actors with virtual clones, where will it end…?