Bruce Lee, Audrey Hepburn and the ethics of digital necromancy -Hannah Ellis-Petersen

The American actress, Janet Leigh was born in 1927 and died in 2004 at the age of 77. My last project, Don’t Have Nightmares 0.1, involved taking a segment of icon cinematic footage from the film Psycho and animating approximately 28-seconds. In order to get a realistic likeness of Janet Leigh, enlarging the film resolution enabled me to analyse information such as light and shadow on her face, body and hair with greater visibility and more clarity. However, I still needed still images and other footage of the actress as it was difficult to animate blurry footage due to the shower water. By using digital technology, I could scan a person who was 32 years old at the time and manipulate her image with some moderate success. It was the first time I had employed digital necromancy in an art project. It got me thinking, with more advanced software tools, a technically skilled team of animators, time and of course consent from the Leigh family or whoever holds her image rights, Janet Leigh could continue to star in films 10 years after her death. It seems that resurrecting dead screen stars is becoming more prevalent in cinema/television these days. A few weeks ago I came across an engaging article in The Guardian (below) by Hannah Ellis-Petersen.  I’ve read quite a few articles like this over the past year. It makes you wonder, with all the increasing digital technology, will using human actors for films just become some antiquated, archaic concept?

The Guardian, Saturday, 11th April 2015 

Bruce Lee, Audrey Hepburn and the ethics of digital necromancy

by Hannah Ellis-Petersen

Recent figures show posthumous earnings by celebrities from their likeness now exceeds £1bn, with some selling image rights before death
In Arthur C Clarke’s July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century, his 1986 novel speculating what a day in the 21st century might look like, Clarke envisions a cinema listing of the future.
“Still Gone with the Wind: The sequel picks up several years after where the 80-year-old original left off, with Rhett and Scarlett reuniting in their middle age, in 1880. Features the original cast (Clark Gable, Olivia de Havilland, and Vivien Leigh) and studio sets resurrected by computer graphic synthesis. Still Gone sets out to prove that they do make ‘em like they used to.”
Clarke’s book was pure science fiction, but almost 30 years later his predictions have proved prescient. Death, once the finite end to a celebrity career, is now only a marker for the next stage, and digitally resurrected celebrities – be they Paul Walker or Audrey Hepburn – are now posthumously making their way back onto our screens.

But such digital necromancy is raising concerns. It was announced at the end of March that plans are in the works to digitally insert Bruce Lee, 42 years after his death, into Ip Man 3, the third film in a series about his former teacher. It’s not the first time computer graphics (CG) technology have been used to bring the martial arts star back to life on screen – his digitally reanimated figure recently starred in an advert for Johnnie Walker Blue whisky. However, the Bruce Lee estate is now seeking legal action to prevent his CG likeness appearing in the film, with their lawyer stating the family are “justifiably shocked” at the idea.
It is perhaps to stop such situations that Robin Williams, it was revealed last week, signed a deed to prevent his image, or any likeness of him, being used at least 25 years after his death. It restricts any posthumous exploitation of the actor, be it through the use of CG to digitally resurrect him in Mrs Doubtfire 2 or as a live hologram performing comedy on stage – something that the advancement of technology has made an increasingly likely occurrence.
Indeed, recent figures have shown that the posthumous earnings made by celebrities from their image or likeness alone now exceeds £1bn, with some, such as Muhammad Ali, even selling their image rights before death so they can reap the profits while still alive.
While the practice has mainly been restricted to finishing off performances of actors who died midway through filming – such as Paul Walker in Fast and Furious 7 – it has also been utilized by advertisers, keen to attach famous faces to their brands. Most notable is the recent reanimation of Audrey Hepburn in an advert for Galaxy chocolate.
Mike McGee, the co-founder and creative director of Framestore, the special effects studio who won an Oscar for Gravity, was in the team responsible for the Audrey Hepburn reanimation and said it still required “vast” amounts of work to make the replicas appear alive. However, he predicted the phenomenon of reviving dead celebrities was only just beginning.
It took Framestore four months of work to create the lifelike Audrey Hepburn, for just 60 seconds of advert, and managed it by using a combination of old photographs and a body double to build an accurate CG digital form of everything from her skin to her eyelashes – even going on location to get the lifelike light and shadow.
“We found that we could create a realistic still image of Hepburn quite quickly but as soon as she has to move, turn her head or open her mouth, that’s when things can start to look uncanny, when things don’t look 100% real,” he said.
“The human eye can spot it because we’re so used to looking at our own reflection, so we subconsciously know all those tiny details and it’s that final 5% of realism that takes the most time to achieve. It’s all about getting the moisture in the eyes to look right, getting the eyelids to flutter correctly when someone blinks, the corner of someone’s lips to turn up a little just before they smile, because it’s those subtle signal and movements that make a great performance by any actor. And to ask an animator to copy that onto a computer model and capture a human performance is really challenging.”
He added: “I do think this will happen more and more. As the technology develops, I see no reason that in the future we wouldn’t see a CG performance by a dead actor up for a Bafta or an Oscar.”

Don’t Have Nightmares 0.1 (2015)

One Reply to “Bruce Lee, Audrey Hepburn and the ethics of digital necromancy -Hannah Ellis-Petersen”

  1. Yep, real people as actors might well be redundant in film and relegated to the theatre at some point as it is increasingly difficult to tell what is real and computer generated on screen. ATB Pete

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