May 17, 2015

Could Marilyn Monroe Star In A New Film?


Furious 7’s digital Paul Walker body double reopens speculation about CGI characters replacing actors or ‘resurrecting’ late movie stars, reports James Rocchi. 
It’s already the fourth highest grossing film of all time at the worldwide box office. But some say Furious 7 may not just be an extraordinary success but a glimpse at the future of film-making. When Paul Walker died in a car crash in November 2013, he hadn’t finished shooting the film, so digital face-replacement technology was used in his remaining scenes. 

 His brothers Caleb and Cody Walker stood in for him as the shoot continued, and then their late brother’s face was digitally superimposed on their own to ensure that the film, more than halfway through production at the time of Walker’s fatal accident, could be finished.
It’s just one step toward the day, some Hollywood futurists predict, when a deceased movie star can be brought back to life on screen by digital effects – and not just for a few scenes as with the CGI Paul Walker in Furious 7, but for entire films.

Imagine a new movie ‘starring’ Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant. And yet creating a digital copy of an actor to carry an entire performance remains an elusive goal, joining flying cars and food pills as ‘inevitable’ future developments that always seem somehow out of reach. If it’s a goal that anyone actually desires, that is.

The mechanics of creating a photo-real, all-CGI performance may be simply too time-consuming for film-makers. “When you create creatures or do face-replacement, it’s human time and human effort,” says Andrew Whitehurst, visual effects supervisor on Alex Garland’s recent sci-fi film Ex Machina. “And it’s not a question of ‘Oh, the computers aren’t fast enough’; it’s the psychological element of the [CGI character] that you need to be able to understand, how humans work physically but also psychologically in order to create this performance – and I do not see it as being something that is even on the horizon.”

Ex Machina combines human movement and computer-generated effects in an artificially intelligent femme fatale named Ava. As played by Alicia Vikander, Ava has an artificial body with partially transparent parts – a visually-striking look that Whitehurst and his team worked hard to achieve. “There’s the movement of Ava, which is entirely driven by Alicia’s performance, [but] the complexity of the actual mechanics of the robot is something we created from scratch,” Whitehurst says. “So there are two sides: one is the actual creation of the robot parts, and the other is the way the players actually move, and the way that they inhabit the space, that’s down to us minutely copying what Alicia did on set.”

Virtual reality
Whitehurst thinks that the all-digital actor, invented or based on a past star, is a much more difficult proposition than the hype that surrounds the idea would suggest. Film critic Alison Willmore of Buzzfeed sees the potential of all-digital actors being too seductive for Hollywood to stop trying, however. “The all-synthetic actor can’t throw a fit halfway through his or her synthetic contract,” she says. “The synthetic actor is the ultimate performer. As much as it seems the stuff of – and has been the stuff of several -- dark, futuristic movies, I do think it’s not unreasonable of Hollywood, and the music industry as well, to have that impulse to make the all-digital performer, whether an original creation or a ‘digital ghost’.” In recent years, posthumous performances via holographic versions of Elvis Presley, Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson on TV programmes, concerts and awards shows have elicited a mixed response – with most viewers ultimately deciding they preferred the real thing.

That lukewarm audience response has diminished Hollywood’s interest in exploring the technology further – especially when you consider how expensive, time-consuming, and reliant on analogue technology such attempts are. Just ask Eric Barba, the chief creative officer of special effects company Digital Domain, who was asked to reverse time’s effect for Disney’s Tron: Legacy and create a younger Jeff Bridges – a 32-year-old version of the actor, who was 60 at the time of the film’s production – Their first step to making it happen was to work off a physical cast of Bridges’ face. “We certainly went back and looked at the era of [Bridges’s career] that the filmmakers felt would be the right age,” says Barba. “…So we were able to sculpt that likeness for the younger Bridges.” But an actual human model was essential for the work. And though he ultimately appeared 30 years younger onscreen, the movements of the character were still supplied by Bridges himself via motion capture – it wasn’t purely digital animation.

Days of future past
At the idea that one day you could feed film negatives, Blu-ray discs and other footage into a computer to create, say, an all-digital Humphrey Bogart to star in another film, Barba laughs. “Images on film are generally from one perspective,” he says. “They’re not from multiple perspectives at exactly the same time. And they’re also [filmed using] different lenses, and each lens has a slightly different effect on perspective. If Jeff Bridges was shot with a wide lens, you see that; if Jeff was shot with a longer lens, his face is going have a slightly different look to it. So you really can’t digitize an image [of an actor] to create [another character played by that actor]; that’s a fantasy world.”

The range of scenes featuring all-digital stand-ins is also limited. “We’ve done face-replacement for a lot of films, and you can get away with a lot in action scenes,” says Whitehurst. “But as soon as you have even a little bit of dialogue, it is colossally hard to do.” If you were to create a digital version of the young Laurence Olivier as Richard III, it would be easier to have him engage in a swordfight than recite the “winter of our discontent” soliloquy. “It’s the subtlety of human performance and human motion that is the thing that is very, very, very difficult to try and reproduce,” says Whitehurst. “There’s not even a question of the amount – or the feeding in – of the data. Creating a digital human, it’s not like trying to simulate an ocean, where the more data you chuck at it, the more complicated you make the simulation, it gets as good as it gets; with faces, with human performance, it’s a much more artistically driven enterprise.”

But the rule in Hollywood is that even a seemingly impossible technology can be realised if it promises profit. “Do I have a great desire to see a digitally-resurrected Humphrey Bogart try and sell me something in a commercial and then appear alongside Justin Bieber in a buddy-cop comedy?” asks Willmore. “No. But do I think it’s totally off the table for someone to try it if the technology begins to approach feasibility? It could totally happen.”

“I’m not saying it’s never going to happen,” adds Whitehurst. “But it’s certainly something that’s not going to happen imminently.” 

For now, though, the best way to create digital performances is through the motion-capture scanning of flesh-and-blood actors. And even if computerised actors are on the horizon, Whitehurst also thinks that the magic of special effects can never recreate the more mercurial magic of Hollywood: fame and all that comes with it. “I don’t know why you would want to spend time trying to create a recreation of Humphrey Bogart,” he says.

 “It seems like a strange thing to want to do. And [since] a lot of the magic of Hollywood is [rooted in] the idea of celebrity… you clearly wouldn’t have [that if an actor] was completely computer-generated.” What would happen to the Oscars, to film premieres, to the whole aspirational fantasy of movie stardom? 

Compared to a hypothetical movie industry built around new films starring Clark Gable and Marilyn Monroe, flying cars don’t seem that far-fetched.



With many thanks to BBC Culture

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