The Living Dead: An Analysis of Digital Resurrection

This photograph showcases the digital resurrection of Peter Cushing in the 2016 film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, directed by Gareth Edwards (MovieWeb, 2017).


Introduction

British actor Peter Cushing has been dead for 23 years. In August of 1994, the world bid farewell to this cultural icon, and all that was left to remember the man was the legacy that he had left behind. That is, until the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story late last year. Astonishing, as if by magic, Peter Cushing had “risen from the dead” to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin, one of his most iconic characters in American cinema. I remember sitting in the movie theater on the film’s opening night and seeing Cushing first appear: his back fronting the camera and his face mysteriously reflecting, like a ghost, in a window as he stared out to the Death Star. And then, unexpectedly, he turned around and faced the camera directly in a full close up. Gasps erupted throughout the audience, and my jaw dropped to the floor. What was just a shadowy reflection of Peter Cushing had suddenly revealed to be the man himself.

Of course, digital technology (specifically CGI) has been used numerous times by the media before to reanimate and appropriate dead celebrities in new contexts, a practice known as digital resurrection. But as the technology behind digital resurrection is advancing, it is changing cinema in a big way. We’ve finally come to the point where digital technology has become so advanced that one cannot tell what is real and what isn’t in film, and special effects artists have the power to perform a type of virtual necromancy. Indeed, the visual artistry in Rogue One is so photorealistic that the CGI Peter Cushing is indistinguishable from the rest of the cast; he looks, moves, and speaks just as every other living actor in the film. Anyone unaware of Cushing’s living status and the production history of the film can be fooled into thinking that the performer is really there in the flesh. Equally fascinating as the technology behind digital resurrection is its implications towards the relationship between celebrities and the public, who have an eerie fixation on the topic at hand. The practice of digital resurrection is a morally dubious one, and it very often results in unethical behavior. Not only does the practice provide the power to exploit a deceased celebrity’s image for personal gain and profit, but it also has unhealthily redefined the status of celebrities as immortal figures in the eyes of the public.  However, our culture’s fascination with nostalgia proves to be a commendable defense of digital resurrection, despite the complications that arise when practicing it.

Digital Resurrection: Playing God

“Your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.” – Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.

While it obviously isn’t the case that our scientists are trying to bring dinosaurs back from extinction, the premise behind this quote from Ian Malcolm nevertheless can be applied to the controversy surrounding digital resurrection. As ‘movie magic’ technology has advanced, filmmakers have been determined to showcase its feats in the most astonishing ways possible, many times not taking into account the consequences that may arise. Indeed, as soon as the practice of virtually reanimating the dead for the big screen came into effect, its ethics have been hotly debated among film critics and philosophers alike, intensifying with every new technological leap. Many people defend digital resurrection as a means to pay tribute to late Hollywood stars and tell their stories the way they are meant to be, and others express its destructive tendencies towards cinema as an art form. Before diving into the ethics surround this debate, I must first address that digital resurrection is only part of a larger controversy in the cinematic world, one that encompasses the use of CGI in general.

While in some instances CGI aids in a performance by enhancing a role that requires substantial body manipulation (Gollum in Lord of the Rings, Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the Na’vi in Avatar), it can nevertheless prove detrimental to talented performers and the philosophy of acting as a whole. As explained by Lisa Purse in her article, “Digital Heroes in Contemporary Hollywood: Exertion, Identification, and the Virtual Action Body”, the rise of CGI is resulting in the “death” of the live actor, who now is being taken over by the “synthespians” of the modern age (5). This reasoning explains why so many living actors are strongly against the rise of CGI and digital resurrection; not only must they compete with these synthespians in finding work, but it also calls into question the very foundation of cinematic acting. Film scholar Lisa Bode sums up this conundrum brilliantly in another article, “No Longer Themselves? Framing Digitally Enabled Posthumous ‘Performance’”, explaining that there is, “…a tipping point where the extent of technological manipulation involved in producing a screen performance tests the limits of our ideas about acting…” (47). In every movie, there is always manipulation of the actor’s performance; cinematographers alter lighting and camera composition to achieve certain emotional and intellectual effects, and editors choose which shots to highlight in a film and which shots to ignore. While these are all ways a filmmaker can manipulate an actor’s performance, they do not disturb the integrity and independence of the performance itself. This independence is shattered through CGI, both in cases with and without digital resurrection. Actors, both alive and dead, can have their facial expressions and bodily movements manipulated to the finest detail; thus, a performance witnessed by an audience on screen could be incredibly different than the actual performance that an actor gave during production. The actor, thus, is being reduced to nothing more than a puppet, whose strings are in the hands of directors, producers, and digital effects artists behind the camera (“No Longer Themselves”, 49). In light of these negative aspects of CGI manipulation, I will now speak specifically about its subcategory of digital resurrection, examining both its benefits and disadvantages.

As summarized by Bode, digital resurrection is practiced in two different scenarios: film completion and repurposing. Film completion occurs when an actor dies during the production of a film, and the filmmakers turn to posthumous performance in order to complete the movie. Repurposing, however, occurs when filmmakers choose to re-contextualize an actor’s likeness with the goal of completing a project that the performer had never been a part of when he or she was living (“No Longer Themselves?”, 50-51). In most cases, digital resurrection done in the case of film completion is morally permissible, while repurposing a deceased actor is mostly an unethical endeavor. Additionally, the level of expertise of the digital resurrection can play a prominent role in its ethicality (whether done in film completion or repurposing), with poorly executed resurrections coming across as highly insulting to the late performer.

The reason why digital resurrection is beneficial in film competition is quite evident. Mainly, it is because filmmakers have permission to use the actor’s likeness throughout the movie from the actor. Before a film production, the actor signs a contract binding him or herself to the completion of the movie. Thus, in the event that the actor dies during production, filmmakers have every right to use digital resurrection to finish what the actor had started. It is for this reason why digital resurrection in the scenario of film completion is generally accepted positively: it is viewed as a means for an actor to complete his or her final performance, something that could be tragically lost if the film is not finished (“No Longer Themselves?”, 50). Additionally, digital resurrection in this case highly benefits the production company, for millions of dollars could be lost in reshooting scenes with a replacement actor or by giving up on the project as a whole. Recently, the film Furious 7 (one of the latest movies in The Fast and the Furious franchise) used digital resurrection to complete Paul Walker’s performance after he died in a brutal car accident. The film released to a moderately high critical reception, and became the 6th highest grossing movie in cinema’s history according to www.boxofficemojo.com. Clearly, it seems that critics and audiences alike accept digital resurrections as a means of film completion.

These positive aspects of digital resurrection for film competition does not excuse the practice in every circumstance; indeed, a poorly executed posthumous performance can prove disastrous no matter the context. The Sopranos is an example of a television show that, while having good intentions, used film completion unethically. In the episode “Proshai, Livushka”, creator David Chase decided to digitally resurrect Nancy Marchand (who had died during production due to lung cancer) in order to give her character, Livia Soprano, an exit that would do her justice. The result, however, was a complete disaster. Commonly referred to as a “bizarre frankenstenian experiment”, the CGI rendering was incredibly sloppy, full of continuity mistakes and unsettling animation (“No Longer Themselves, 53-54). Viewers and critics alike were furious of the CGI abomination after the episode’s airing, to which Chase and the production team of The Sopranos apologized and explained that it was done with the best intentions. While the aim of the creators may have been well, it simply does not excuse them from allowing an insulting image of Nancy Marchand to air on television. It is a display of laziness and insulting disregard to Marchand’s memory. Thus, if an instance of digital resurrection proves to be a failure, as this one did, it should be discontinued and other options should be pursued.

ABC News provides a behind-the-scenes look into Peter Cushing’s digital resurrection for Rogue One (2017).


Repurposing a dead actor’s image is a completely different matter than film completion, wherein the morals become increasingly complicated. For a majority of films, repurposing is an unethical act. Not only does the practice lack the authority it needs, but it also abuses the image of deceased actors for personal interests. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is a perfect example of a film that uses repurposing unethically, despite its nearly flawless recreation of Peter Cushing. As I mentioned in the beginning of this essay, Grand Moff Tarkin is first introduced in the reflection of a window as he oversees the construction of the Death Star. This is a respectful ode to the late actor, as it preserves the image and memory of Cushing in a visually meta circumstance. The film’s director, Gareth Edwards, acknowledges the passing of the great actor by visually displaying him in a way that strongly resembles a spirit or a ghost. But as soon as Tarkin turns around and reveals himself to be a CGI replica of Peter Cushing, that beautiful display is broken and the code of ethics cracks. While the special effects wizardry is truly phenomenal, it does not take away from the fact that Cushing is being robbed of his own performance. As Lisa Bode states in a second article, “‘Grave Robbing’ or ‘Career Comeback’? On the Digital Resurrection of Dead Screen Stars”, it seems that all that is needed now for a talented performer to act in a movie is “…a face, a voice; a set repertoire of gesture and tics that can be simulated; an image, hefting semiotic weight that can be remobilized in new contexts” (38). The filmmakers are dehumanizing Cushing to nothing more than set of nostalgic characteristics that can be manipulated at a whim, and as we all know, a human being is so much than this (“Grave Robbing”, 38).

There is also another issue that Rogue One presents in its resurrection of Cushing, as touched on by Edwards in an interview with CNN Entertainment: “We spoke to Peter Cushing’s estate and asked them, ‘how do you feel about this?’ and they were okay with it. And then the real challenge became: can you do it?” (2017). As discussed by the director, repurposing cannot attain permission to use an actor’s image from the actual performer. Instead, according to Alexandra Sherlock in her article, “Larger than Life: Digital Resurrection and the Re-Enchantment of Society”, it requires authorization from the talent’s estate (165). While consent from an estate is the next best option to direct permission from the actor, it still is not ethical; sure, the estate may think repurposing is what Cushing may have wanted in Rogue One, but how are they supposed to know for sure? Indeed, Peter Cushing had no idea that digital resurrection at this scale could even exist before he died. Without that knowledge, what gives an estate the right to repurpose Cushing if he had absolutely no say in the matter before death? One may rebuttal, like Kiri Hart (a story development executive for Rogue One) did, by explaining that the story would be incomplete without Grand Moff Tarkin and that, in his words, “If he’s not in the movie, we’re going to have to explain why he’s not in the movie…This is kind of his thing” (The New York Times). This response entirely misses the point. Grand Moff Tarkin and Peter Cushing are two different people, one of whom is real and the other fictional. The image of Peter Cushing is not necessary for Tarkin to continue existing because the character can be re-casted to a deserving actor who can give a truly authentic performance.

This advertisement for Superman Returns, directed by Bryan Singer, reveals the process behind Marlon Brando’s digital resurrection (Rhythm & Hues, 2006).


It indeed seems dismal for digital resurrection as an act of repurposing from an ethical standpoint, but there have been a few instances in which this process is morally acceptable. Consider Bryan Singer’s 2006 film, Superman Returns, in which actor Marlon Brando is digitally resurrected to reprise his role as Jor-El (Superman’s father). While the film as a whole is underwhelming to say the least, its repurposing of Brando is, dare I say, one of the greatest uses of digital resurrection in cinema. In the film, Jor-El has died on the planet of Krypton, and has sent his son to Earth in order to save his life. At Superman’s Fortress of Solitude, Jor-El is able to communicate with his son through high-tech pre-recordings made before his death. In one specific scene, the antagonist, Lex Luther (Kevin Spacey), travels to the Fortress of Solitude and finds Jor-El’s recordings, his face illuminating in various crystals throughout the structure as the recordings play. As Rogue One briefly does with Peter Cushing, Superman Returns does on a larger scale with Marlon Brando. By keeping Brando largely obscured by the refracting light of the crystals, choosing a majority of camera angles that do not focus on him, and maintaining a relatively short scene in which he appears, Singer is able to digitally repurpose Brando in a way that respectfully pays tribute to his memory and legacy. It is a rare instance in which, “Brando’s character is contextualized in his respected film world as a mediated recording playing after the originator is long dead…Both actor and character are absent from the world of the living, yet still present in recordings from a past moment” (“No Longer Themselves”, 66). In this film, Brando appropriately appears as a ghost, frozen in the crystals of the past, and the film doesn’t exactly try to hide its intertextuality. As said by Lex Luther himself when asked about the recordings, “No. He’s dead.”

The “Gift” of Immortality

While true immortality remains a wild, unachievable fantasy, celebrities have managed to make an exception to the rule by having their legacies live on far after their death through the outlet of the media. This symbolic immortality takes on a multitude of mediums, from the films, television, and music that contain the late icon to a more recent mechanism: the Internet.  When speaking about symbolic immortality, scholar Alexandra Sherlock refers to the Internet as a “digital heaven”: a thing that cannot be entirely understood or physically accessed, but a place where the dead continue to be experienced through videos, images, music, and social media sites (“Larger Than Life”, 166). It is a place where people can quite literally (and quite easily) visit the dead. With this new achievement of a timeless, never-ending volume of content, it is no wonder why so many of us long for celebrity status; it is the closest anyone can get to achieving a type of immortality that we know exists. With that said, the limits of symbolic immortality are clear, for one is not conscious in the time after one’s death and it does not constitute as lasting for an eternity, as its existence is dependent on those who are still living (Sherlock, 166).

The invention of digital resurrection is drastically changing what it means to be symbolically immortal. Before, the legacy of a deceased celebrity was strictly restricted to what that person had done before his/her death; essentially, celebrities were frozen in the past. Today, digital animators and special effects artists have used advances in digital resurrection technology to thaw the ice of time that had trapped them.  Not only can the image of a celebrity reappear in a new context (as showcased in Forrest Gump); now it can perform verbal and nonverbal feats that the celebrity had never accomplished when he or she was living (“Grave Robbing”, 36). This, essentially, brings an entirely new life to the deceased performer, and it arises a new question in regards to celebrity figures and their relationship to mortality.  If a dead celebrity is able to continue “acting” after his or her death, then what constitutes that person’s death in the first place? Are celebrities considered dead on a purely biological basis, or is their living status more defined by their appearance in the media?

In the public eye, media attention now determines the living status of a celebrity figure, and the organic definitions of life and death are becoming less relevant. As argued best by sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, “…in the age of recording media, things no longer live and then die. Instead they appear and disappear, with the possibility of appearing again”. (“Grave Robbing”, 37). Note that the “age of recording media” includes a timespan that begins far before perfected digital resurrection came into affect; indeed, this way of thinking has been brewing in society for quite some time. From this standpoint, an actor can be considered ‘alive’ if prominently placed in the spotlight of the media, receiving a great deal of public attention. Likewise, the same actor can be considered “dead” if he or she vanishes from the public gaze all together, which could likely be a result of a career downswing or retirement (“Grave Robbing”, 37). So many times have I, like many others, wrongly and ignorantly assumed a celebrity to be dead because of his or her lack of presence in the media. Now that advanced digital resurrection exists, it has only promoted this unhealthy view of celebrity immortality. In a society where new celebrity performances are no longer bound by death, the only way for that celebrity to “die” in the mind of the public is if new forms of his or her iconography were to vanish for a substantial period of time. This new cultural view of mortality is indeed a negative aspect of digital resurrection; however, as I will now explain, there is another element of our society that strongly defends creating posthumous performances.

The Enticement of Nostalgia

Paul Walker’s digital resurrection for the completion of James Wan’s Furious 7 (Universal Pictures, 2015)


There are a number of factors that can aid in explaining why digital resurrection has risen in film and in the media as a whole. What is, perhaps, the greatest driving force behind the movement is Western culture’s fascination with nostalgia. First, let us examine what nostalgia really is. According to Vera Dika in her novel, Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film, nostalgia can be described as a “re-experiencing the past”, and it is a trend that has completely dominated popular culture beginning in the early 1970s (11). Nostalgia is the result of postmodernism, and while it is mainly known for its attitude of cultural skepticism, it also brought a rise in the practice of imitation in works of art (Dika, 1). Today, nostalgia can be found almost anywhere you look, but nowhere is it more prevalent than in television and film. One prominent example of a nostalgic television show is the extremely popular Netflix original series, Stranger Things, in which the entire structure is based off of 1980s culture. In the film industry, the amount of remakes, spin-offs, and sequels being produced is enormous; it seems a new superhero film is being released every month. Additionally, the reason many all-time top box office films (including Star Wars VI: The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and The Avengers) become so profitable worldwide is simply because they are nostalgic of other popular films and entertainment that preceded them. If a film or TV show gains popularity due to its nostalgic nature, then it is logical for digital resurrection to become a popular practice, and for programs to strive to perfect it. Certainly nothing is more nostalgic than witnessing a historical icon rise from the dead on the big screen. But what exactly is it about nostalgia that makes it so appealing to our society?

For a long period, it has been widely believed that nostalgia is a bittersweet, unhealthy process. Authors Krystine Batcho and Simran Shikh elaborate on this phenomenon in that one would gain pleasure from re-experiencing a moment in the past through memory, but would suffer because the moment is only just a memory, something no longer practically attainable. Those who regularly were in a nostalgic state were considered to be unhealthy, as they were ‘stuck’ in the past, ignoring their present lives. (“Anticipatory Nostalgia”, 75). The trend of nostalgia in film as a result of the postmodernist movement has been considered a corruption of art, in that originality has been lost, filled to the brim with, “…stories that are no longer our own” (Dika, 10).

In acknowledgment of these claims, I would like to defend nostalgia as a practice that is detrimental to neither health nor cinema. Indeed, a slue of new studies have showcased the immense benefits of nostalgia, for they have proven that it gives us a greater sense of ourselves and boosts both our confidence and our social connectedness (Batch & Shikh, 75). In the realm of film, nostalgia allows for a reimagining of long forgotten but highly important forms of art. Nostalgic films are, “…reconstructions of dead or dismantled forms, genres that are now returned after a period of absence or destruction. The films are thus better understood as copies whose originals are often lost or little known” (Dika, 10-11). As many art students know full well, nothing is original; thus, critiquing a film on the basis of its nostalgia is rather redundant, in that almost every film ever made has narrative and technical elements that are heavily borrowed from earlier precedents. This never-ending chain of borrowing may seem negative at a glance, but it is actually quite the contrary; indeed, by consistently building off each other’s work, filmmakers can elevate, manipulate, and deconstruct genre/story conventions in new, exciting ways that allow audiences and artists alike to gain new perspectives in various topics. Clearly, these positive outcomes of nostalgia are a major reason as to why it has taken over Western culture, and it seems digital resurrection, while a morally corrupt practice indeed, has some very substantial and reasonable motivations behind it.

Conclusion

Posthumous Marlon Brando and Kevin Spacey in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (Warner Bros., 2006).


Digital resurrection has brought about dramatic changes and controversial debates in regards to the celebrity image in the media and the relationship between cultural icons and the public. It is a morally peculiar practice sparked by the rise of nostalgia in our postmodernist society, altering the mortal conditions of those who have achieved celebrity status. No longer do the biological definitions of life and death apply to these iconic figures; not only can their images endure long after their passing, but they can be manipulated and re-contextualized, providing them a new ‘life’ of posthumous performance. Digital resurrection used in circumstances of film completion and repurposing have morally good and bad aspects that will continue to be debated as digital technology advances in the future. But what exactly may this future hold? We’ve reached what may seem like a peak for digital resurrection now that a posthumous performance can appear identical to a living one. While it is uncertain of what is to come, one thing is obvious: digital resurrection is never going away, and its regulation is dependent on legislation. As such, artists and audiences alike have the opportunity to communicate with their legislatures about digital resurrection and the rights of deceased figures. With the passage of detailed and knowledgeable laws regarding this issue, we can have a future in which digital resurrection can be practiced safely and respectfully.

Works Cited

Batcho, Krystine, and Simran Shikh. “Anticipatory nostalgia: Missing the present before it’s gone.” Personalities and Individual Differences. Vol. 98. August 2016. pp. 75-84. Web. 14 April 2017.

Bode, Lisa. “‘Grave Robbing’ or ‘Career Comeback’? On the Digital Resurrection of Dead Screen Stars”. History of Stardom Reconsidered. November 2006, pp. 36-40. Web. 6 March 2017.

Bode, Lisa. “No Longer Themselves? Framing Digitally Enabled Posthumous “Performance””. Cinema Journal, vol. 49, no. 4. 2010, pp. 46-70. Web. 4 March 2017.

Brando, Marlon, performer. Superman Returns. Directed by Bryan Singer. Warner Bros. Pictures. 2006.

Cushing, Peter, performer. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Directed by Gareth Edwards. Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, 2016.

Dika, Vera. Recycled Culture in Contemporary Art and Film: The Uses of Nostalgia.Cambridge University Press, 9 June 2003.

Edwards, Gareth. “‘Rogue One’ director on recreating iconic characters with CGI.”CNN. 24 March, 2017, www.cnn.com/videos/entertainment/2017/03/24/rogue-one-star-wars-gareth-edwards-cgi-tarkin-princess-leia.cnn.

“Furious 7”. Box Office Mojo, 20 April 2017, http://www.boxofficemojo.com/movies/?id=fast7.htm.

“How Rouge One Created Princess Leia, Grand Moff Tarkin.” Youtube, uploaded by ABC News, 5 January 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMB2sLwz0Do.

Itzkoff, Dave. “How ‘Rogue One’ Brought Back Familiar Faces.” The New York Times, 27 December 2016. Web. www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/movies/how-rogue-one-brought-back-grand-moff-tarkin.html

Jurassic Park. Directed by Steven Spielberg. Universal Pictures. 1993.

Matt and Ross Duffer, creators. Stranger Things. 21 Laps Entertainment and Netflix. 2016.

“Proshai, Livushka.” The Sopranos: The Complete Third Season. Directed by Time Van Patten, performances by Nancy Marchand. HBO, 2001.

Purse, Lisa. “Digital Heroes in Contemporary Hollywood: Exertion, Identification, and the Virtual Action Body”. Film Criticism, vol. 32, no. 1, 2007, pp. 5-25. Web. 2 March 2017.

Rhythm & Hues Studios. “Marlon Brando as Jor-El.” Youtube, uploaded by metallo2006, 14 July 2006, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kMXWCeQJ7l4

Sherlock, Alexandra. “Larger Than Life: Digital Resurrection and the Re-Enchantment of Society.” The Information Society, vol 29, no. 3. 2013. pp. 164-176. Web. 14 March 2017.

Untitled Opening Photograph of Peter Cushing. n.d. Lucasfilm Responds to Rogue One CG Character Backlash. MovieWeb. Web. 21 April 2017. http://cdn.movieweb.com/img.news.tops/NELd4ozoFWMhPL_2_b.jpg

Walker, Paul, performer. Furious 7. Directed by James Wan. Universal Pictures, 2015

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *