De-Aging Actors Has Gotten Better in Movies But it Remains an Ethically Complicated Issue
So, that Captain Marvel movie is pretty good, eh? I won’t list everything I enjoyed about the film, although there was certainly much to appreciate. One of the biggest surprises of the latest installment of the MCU came with the arrival of ’90s Nick Fury. Samuel L. Jackson is still in the role he’s made iconic since his debut in Iron Man, but he’s noticeably more fresh faced (and in possession of two eyes). This wasn’t the first time the franchise had used de-aging technology to take certain characters back a few years (Kurt Russell went through it in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, as did Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War), but this occurrence was certainly the most seamless execution we’ve seen of it so far. In such circumstances, it’s easy to use the phrase ‘it’s uncanny’, but uncanny would imply there was something off about Jackson’s appearance here. Rest assured that there definitely isn’t. Clark Gregg as baby Agent Coulson is a tad more plastic, but not by much. If this was another opportunity for Marvel Studios and The Walt Disney Company to flex their muscles and show off just how good they’ve gotten at this level of high stakes blockbuster film-making, then they succeeded with energy to spare.
The tech is there, which opens up rich possibilities for its use in future films. Martin Scorsese’s upcoming Netflix epic The Irishman will use de-aging CGI to track Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and others through several decades, and if the effects in that are anywhere near on the MCU’s level then this could be the director’s most technologically advanced film yet. Its potential extends beyond a mere computer facelift. Now, we’re talking full-on resurrection. It’s no wonder the rumours have sparked afresh of upcoming Star Wars movies using said CGI to bring Princess Leia back.
Of course, there are issues that lie far beyond the sheer creative excitement of such computer generated marvels. We saw these conversations explode when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story brought Peter Cushing back from the dead with an effect that was a tad too unnerving to be impressive. Even the most engrossed viewer struggled to ignore just how bonkers it was to see this obviously fake recreation of one of Britain’s most iconic actors, his face atop a body that fit like a badly tailored suit. You could talk for days about the impressive feat of reviving Grand Moff Tarkin, of the thousands of hours of man power required to make it happen, and how incredibly quick cinematic storytelling techniques have evolved, but at the end of the day, those eyes remained so frightfully dead.
Peter Cushing’s family were heavily involved in the process of reanimating his likeness for Rogue One. Permission was obtained from his estate for the process, although it remains murky as to whether this will be a legal requirement in the future should other directors and studios wish to make similar decisions. In California, there are laws in place protecting actors’ images after their death. As noted by Variety, ‘The legislature passed a law in 1984 establishing the postmortem right of publicity and timing them out 50 years after the individual’s death. The law was a response to a court ruling finding that Bela Lugosi’s heirs had no power to prevent the use of his image in Dracula merchandise. At the urging of the Screen Actors Guild, the legislature has since extended the right to 70 years.
It’s a weighty legacy for any estate to deal with. Previously, you only had to worry about how their movies or music would be used after their death, or at best, whether to put their stationary face on a whisky ad. Now, you can go full on necromancer. The Audrey Hepburn ™ estate allowed her likeness to be used in a chocolate advert. The Estate of Marilyn Monroe LLC let her be in a Dior advert alongside Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich and you can buy lots of pretty official merchandise from their website, including a life-size cardboard cut-out of her from The Seven Year Itch for the low price of $39.95. According to AdAge, ‘the marketing, licensing and commercial use of dead celebrities is an estimated $3.0 billion business.’ For me, it feels questionable enough when these advertisements just use the photos and audio of said celebrities. Now, they’re being revived as something real yet entirely not, and that never stops being ghoulish.
Besides, I never really felt like Audrey Hepburn of all people would be wild about being the undead face of Dove/Galaxy chocolate. Maybe if it were a Givenchy campaign, I’d understand it. I can practically hear the guffaws of irony over the entire conversation regarding celebrities in advertising and integrity. Nobody really believes George Clooney is that into the coffee brand he’s been shilling for years but hey, when the ad works, why complain? Still, questions over a celebrity brand’s potency and how effective it is post-mortem have become more relevant than ever thanks to this technology. Ultimately, however, such questions can be eschewed entirely should the estate permit it. How many times have you seen ‘new and undiscovered material’ from that that one late musician you love be released years after they died? It didn’t take long for the Prince estate to start that cycle after he died and everyone knew how he felt about maintaining control of his work. Your dead actor wouldn’t have been a fan of that brand? Well, they can’t complain about it now. It’s not like it’s really them doing the talking.
Such problems aren’t a pressing matter for actors still living who are just having a few years shed off, but that doesn’t make it a trouble-free issue to deal with. It seems inevitable that there will be further changes in entertainment law to ensure that actors having their likenesses scanned for future use are financially and ethically secure. It may be the best new way to keep their careers relevant, or maybe just a way to get insurance agents off their backs should they be injured on set and production can’t slow down to accommodate them. Visual-effects company Digital Domain have, according to MIT Technology Review, started to take on individual celebrities as clients, capturing every angle of their faces so that the recreation process is made simpler.
So, what does this lead to? Will our most beloved stars be giving Oscar calibre performances from beyond the grave? How long before someone ‘casts’ Marilyn Monroe, after paying a hefty fee to her estate? Will the sound and fury of those hologram concert performances become the new norm in Hollywood? And even for those still living who are merely de-aged for a fun flashback moment, when does the work of acting become the work of technology? I suppose it beats plastic surgery.
Header Image Source: Marvel Studios // The Walt Disney Company
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