Acting in the digital age places actors in a unique position. Actors have long adapted alongside technological innovations in order to further perfect the illusion of cinema. Advances like green screen technology and special effects transformed the industry over the past 30 years. Now, it would appear that technological advances are continuously multiplying. Whether it’s transporting them to distant worlds with The Volume or digitally altering their appearance like with de-aging, actors will certainly continue to function as the conduits of major industry innovations. In fact, you could even consider one such innovation a virtual fountain of youth.
The digital age of acting also brings with it the concepts of a digital resurrection and digital identity. The idea is that an actor like Al Pacino could star in a film long after he retires to the actors’ version of Valhalla. Er – who’s ready for Scarface: Regenesis?!
Learn more about how digital identities will affect actors in their careers below.
Digital resurrections in Hollywood
Digital resurrections of famous actors have historically been the result of an actor’s sudden passing while in production. Who doesn’t remember saying goodbye to both Paul Walker and his character Brian O’Connor after the actor’s tragic death during the filming of Furious 7? The filmmakers brought in the best in the industry. WETA Digital tastefully completed Walker’s scenes along with the help of his brothers Caleb and Cody in 2014.
Before the technology was available, filmmakers would either have to recast or minimize an actor’s role in the film if they died during production. However, the ‘90s presented a time when technology advanced enough to where Alex Proyas could finish The Crow after an accident with a firearm on set killed the film’s star, Brandon Lee. Lee’s stuntman Chad Stahelski (yes, the director of the John Wick films) acted out the rest of the film while the filmmakers superimposed Lee’s face with computer tech for closeups.
How far have digital resurrections come?
Technological advancements in recent years makes it possible to use digital resurrections as an artistic choice. For the upcoming film Finding Jack, James Dean is set to star in a secondary leading role with significant screen time. (Wait until you hear that he beat out Paul Newman for the role after Elvis dropped out.) Yeesh.
The filmmakers will digitally resurrect the Hollywood star who died in 1955 to play Rogan, an army unit leader who helps a soldier, Fletcher, rescue his dog after the war in Vietnam. The filmmakers behind Finding Jack plan on “full body” CGI for Dean using footage and photos of him. The only feature not Dean is the actor who performs his voice.
What do digital resurrections mean for actors?
The big question is: are digital resurrections good news or bad news for actors working today? Well, one could hardly deny that the technology does certainly take roles away from living performers. This is especially alarming regarding original pieces as opposed to pre-existing franchises like Star Wars. And as the technology becomes more prevalent and affordable, will smaller productions take advantage of the star power that they couldn’t otherwise afford?
On the other hand, one could make the argument that this technology creates additional jobs. For instance, even though the filmmakers are creating full body CGI for James Dean and have no need for a body double, they still need a voice actor and a team of special effects professionals.
Digital resurrections are a great insurance policy for large-scale blockbusters while also benefiting both a high-profile actor’s legacy and estate. That said, what’s this kind of technology mean for actors at large?
Scanning technology creates 3D replicas
It’s not only classic Hollywood stars who are subject to digitization. The scanning technology for preserving 3D digital replicas is becoming more routine. For one, video games and cinema converged into a new kind of audio/visual experience. Now, videogame developers utilize actors to heighten storytelling and realism.
Ingvild Deila (Carrie Fisher’s body double in Rogue One) told Technology Review about the reasoning behind being scanned by Industrial Light and Magic: “It’s sort of a safe bet for the people with the money. It’s a familiar face. We like to repeat what’s worked in the past, so it’s part financial, part nostalgia.”
Now, the Star Wars franchise scans every lead character in case the unforeseeable happens. This means that actors could expand their legacies or even make money for their family and loved ones post mortem. Actors scanned in early enough could very well continue to receive younger roles as they age. One example is Samual L. Jackson in Captain Marvel who almost didn’t recognize himself.
This special kind of scanning is only available by select companies like Digital Domain. It’s an arduous two-day process and costs somewhere in the ballpark of a million dollars. So, only big studios will have access to the technology – at least for the near future. The scanning process involves hundreds of custom LED lights positioned in a sphere that records numerous images in the span of seconds. Digital Domain captures the way light strikes faces from every angle and varying light temperatures.
The actor Stephen Lang (Colonel Quaritch in Avatar) told VICE’s The Creator Project about his experience being scanned, “They’re able to capture all of your expressions – 360 degrees – all the follicles of your hair and everything, so it can basically duplicate you…”
What is digital copyright?
Acting in the digital age requires that you keep a close eye on the latest trends. With the latest aforementioned advances, actors should now be aware of their digital identities.
Digital identity is your personal data that uniquely describes you. The digital identity of the average person is a more abstract representation of themselves, pulled from their data, varying work and private accounts, social profiles, and things of that nature.
Actors scanned by computers to create new performances present the question of identity standards. For one, we suggest actors should consider their digital likeness and how it could be used after they pass on. As an actor, you must ask yourself, would you be happy if your likeness was used in a project that you had no say over? Maybe you trust your family and estate to make such decisions, or perhaps you disagree with the very concept of it all.
Protect your digital identity
In this era of technology, actors must describe in their wills whether or not their digital identity could be employed in posthumous projects. If you’re an actor in your prime then it may be the time to have a conversation with your agent. It may sound a bit silly but our reality is becoming much more outlandish with cutting-edge digital innovations. If you’re concerned about what they think, tell your agent that if you think this topic is too fanciful, go ask Tupac’s hologram what he thought about his latest tour.
Take note that there’s a difference between digital and virtual humans, according to Digital Domain’s Darren Hendler. Real human actors operate digital actors who wear their likeness like a suit. On the flip side, artificial intelligence drives virtual humans and therefore functions autonomously.
The bottom line
The landscape of technology seems to have no limit, especially alongside the film and entertainment industry. Whether you think it’s a good thing or a bad thing, evidence suggests that it’s here to stay.
There are projects currently in the works that you may otherwise question as an episode of Black Mirror. For instance, Maze Theory is leading a virtual reality development based on Peaky Blinders where AI characters will lead the narrative. They function as a “black box” and react uniquely to the way other human actors treat them.
Perhaps we’re moving toward a time where whole projects are led by digital and AI-driven virtual humans. The experts suggest that we are still about a decade or so away from significant changes. When that time arrives, actors will serve as puppet-doubles for famous digital performers. Actors who land lead roles, however, will most likely birth a digital identity that will live out their legacy long after they’re gone. Either way, now is the time to consider how we treat our digital identities in the land of tomorrow.