What Do Actors Need to Know About Digital Resurrection?

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Photo Source: Walt Disney Studios. Pictured – Guy Henry in Rogue One

Acting in the Digital Age is a series that explores the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing industry. In this edition, Backstage looks at the growing practice of digitally resurrecting dead actors in films and television.

One of the strangest side-effects of technology’s rise in the world of acting is the growth in digital resurrections, with film studios going to great lengths to splice actors into new films made long after their deaths.

Many feel uneasy about this growing trend, and it does raise a lot of questions: if an actor isn’t alive any more, how can they agree to appear in a film? If they aren’t around to do the performance, who is actually reading the lines? And who has the most to gain from a long-dead actor making a posthumous appearance in a film?

With digital resurrection now something actors need to consider while they’re still very much alive, Backstage takes a look at these practical and ethical questions and guides you through the weird world of on-screen rebirth.

Where did it begin?
The 1990s were the decade when visual effects technology began to align with Hollywood’s interest in putting deceased acting talent back on the big screen. It’s a trend that began out of necessity.

In the pre-digital era, the death of an actor midway through production was very difficult to work around. You might have to recast the role, halt production, or rewrite the script to make the talent in question less central to the narrative. But when 1994’s The Crow was in production and star Brandon Lee tragically died on set, emerging technology offered a new way for director Alex Proyas to complete the film. Stuntman Chad Stahelski acted out the rest of Lee’s scenes, and computer magic was used to superimpose Lee’s appearance over Stahelski’s face in scenes where a close-up was unavoidable. The film was completed and it became a decent-sized success. 

Perhaps that decade’s most famous example came when Oliver Reed died during the production of Gladiator (released in 2000). Director Ridley Scott combined a body double with a digitally constructed face to finish Reed’s few remaining scenes. This kind of use – the rounding off of an actor’s pre-existing performance to finish a film they’d already signed on for – is widely seen as the most justifiable application of digital resurrection.

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Other early uses
Around the time the makers of The Crow were grappling with Brandon Lee’s untimely death, other studios and directors were finding their own ways of getting deceased actors back into action. 

Director Robert Zemeckis pulled off various compositing tricks in 1994’s Forrest Gump, inserting Tom Hanks into iconic moments from history and having him interact with famous faces from the past. Following this, Zemeckis tried to bring back the long-dead legend Humphrey Bogart for a 1995 episode of TV’s horror anthology Tales From The Crypt. 

The result is a visually jarring combination: you’ve got newly-colourised classic footage of Bogart’s face, superimposed onto a stand-in’s body, with dialogue read by an impersonator, while digital technology meshes it all together and makes Bogart’s eyes and mouth move in the necessary directions. By modern standards, this early attempt at a fully posthumous on-screen resurrection looks somewhat bizarre. But it was definitely a sign of things to come.

The present
Digital resurrections are now becoming more common and more mainstream. When Paul Walker died midway through production on 2015’s Furious 7, special effects and stand-ins were used to give his character a big emotional send-off at the climax of the film. Those stand-ins included Walker’s brothers, who gave the project their full support.

In 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, director Gareth Edwards took things to a new level: he oversaw the creation of a mostly-convincing digital replica of Peter Cushing, with CGI combining with a new actor’s performance to bring a passable likeness of Cushing’s original Star Wars character, together with lots of new lines, onto the screen. The film also features a brief shot of a young Princess Leia, using the same combination of CGI and a body-double actor, and the movie was released shortly after Carrie Fisher died. 

That’s not the only time Fisher has been spliced into a film after her death. In 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, archive footage of Fisher was digitally tinkered with to give Leia a proper farewell. Unused footage of Fisher from an earlier shoot was altered, superimposing new costumes and locations around Fisher’s performance. New lines were spoken by the rest of the cast to recontextualise Fisher’s scenes, and the end result was pretty seamless.

What next?
Another new level will be reached this year when we see a long-dead actor spliced into a major film that they have no history with whatsoever, with James Dean being cast in new Vietnam war film Finding Jack. This is despite Dean dying in 1955 before the Vietnam war began. 

When the casting decision was rapidly questioned throughout the media, the film’s co-director Anton Ernst spoke to The Hollywood Reporter: “We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extremely complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.”

Deceased actors have appeared posthumously in commercials or short segments before, but casting James Dean in an entire new film is such a fresh idea that many find it jarring. He wasn’t alive to agree to the project or read a single line, so a whole new performance will have to be made using CGI, archive footage, a body double, and an impressionist doing the voice.

Plenty of people took to Twitter to condemn the announcement, with Captain America actor Chris Evans saying: “This is awful. Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple of new John Lennon tunes. The complete lack of understanding here is shameful.”

What should actors do?
Whether or not you agree with the idea of putting dead actors’ likenesses back on the screen, there are implications that all actors need to think about.

Firstly, is this trend robbing living actors of potential work? James Dean’s role in Finding Jack could certainly have gone to someone else. 

It’s more understandable when a digital resurrection is adding to an actor’s performance in a film or franchise they were already a part of, and one could argue it opens up opportunities for the stand-in performers. In Rogue One, for example, Peter Cushing’s body double was played by Holby City star Guy Henry – it’s one of the biggest productions he’s worked on and he’ll have gained valuable experience even though his face was replaced with Cushing’s in the final product.

Secondly, actors now need to be mindful of their digital copyright and what will happen to their likeness after their death. Actors are able to leave their likeness rights in their wills, entrusting those closest to them to decide whether or not to reuse their image in posthumous projects. James Dean’s estate, for example, endorsed the use of his image in Finding Jack. Such projects present a way for actors to support their families and bring in extra revenue from beyond the grave. Which is fine, provided the actor is fully OK with this – and it’s easy to imagine that many would not be.

Whatever your position on this, and however abstract the issue may seem when you’re in your prime, it’s worth discussing it with your agent if you have one, and your nearest and dearest if not. Make sure you leave a legally-enforceable record of what you want to happen to your image after your death so that people can understand your wishes and defend them when the time comes.

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