Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Digital Immortality

If you've ever wanted to see Jimmy Stewart in a new movie with Tom Hanks, or John Wayne and Tommy Lee Jones side by side in a war movie, you may soon get the opportunity.    In fact, whatever odd combination of movie stars you could imagine may soon be a reality.

Today, Magic City films announced that it would be adding James Dean to the cast of its upcoming Vietnam War era drama "Finding Jack."  The company had worked with Dean's family and estate to secure the rights to digitally insert the actor as a new cast member into the film.  In reports, Dean's family is even referring to this as his "fourth film," the one he never got to make.

This idea has long been a dream for Hollywood.  In 2010, it was reported that George Lucas was buying up the likeness and film rights to dead actors, looking to "resurrect" them in new films.  You can even look back as far as 1997, where Fred Astaire dances with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner to see its genesis.

Technology has finally caught up with the ambition.  Just look at the danger posed by deepfakes, where artificial intelligence is used to superimpose existing images, like one person's face, onto other source images, like another person's body.  This type of superimposition can be very convincing, even with little source material to work with.  Imagine what could be accomplished with actors that have a body of work like Betty Davis or John Wayne.

We've even seen tests of this type of work in film, in the standalone Star Wars film Rogue One.  In that film, Peter Cushing and a young Carrie Fisher were added to the cast, with Cushing in particular playing a significant role.  Their likenesses were superimposed on the bodies of stand-in actors, and in Fisher's case, archival audio was used for her lines.  And to many, the effect came off very well.

However, just because we can do something, should we?

Put another away, just because a computer can reconstruct James Dean, should we?  Do we really want to see another film with James Dean where his actions and lines are delivered by a computer?

I think this gets to one of the fundamental questions we will be asking in the future - what constitutes art?  Can artificial intelligence create art?  Or is there something intrinsically human about art?  Is it something so connected to our souls, our essence, that it requires human input?

I know this upcoming film with James Dean's likeness will be more akin to animation.  It will require a computer animator moving Dean's image through the seen, inserting it in appropriate places, making sure it has the appropriate expression, selecting the right audio clips for lines, etc.   But does that actually make it a performance?  Or is it just the equivalent of a sound board?

Further, is this story one that needs to be told with James Dean?  Why not give another voice a chance?  There are so many stories out there to be told and so many storytellers that can tell them, why James Dean - beyond the obvious crass commercial value?

Martin Scorsese in his op-ed in the New York Times continued to explain his views on the current franchise features by calling them essentially soulless.  Mass produced perfect products for immediate consumption.  And while I may quibble with him on the level of degree, there is no doubt that those type of films can become soulless if the creators are not careful.  They can become rote, predictable, and safe.

Digital resurrection seems just that next step in soulless cinema.  You can say that it is just a limitation of our current technology.  That the characters in Rogue One have dead eyes and mouths because our technology is just not there yet.  I would counter that it seems more a function of the cognitive dissonance of the audience.  Us knowing that this person should not be there.  Beyond our suspension of disbelief for the genre, fantasy, sci-fi, or what have you, the audience knows James Dean should not be in a new film, for example.  The performance then becomes one of novelty, not character.  We comment on how realistic the effect was, not how well the performance was acted.

And all for something that isn't necessary.  Peter Cushing's role in Rogue One could have easily been acted by an actor of pedigree who looked similar enough and it still would have carried the same weight.  Actor's replacing one another is as old as the theater.  Carrie Fisher's role would have been even more easy to do, especially given the glorified cameo status it had.

Maybe I'm wrong, but I still see no reason why this role need be played by James Dean.  That I think will be its biggest downfall.

For when technology doesn't service the story, it all too often just gets in the way.

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