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Don’t worry, digital doppelgangers won't replace real actors any time soon

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Because somebody still has to do Good Morning America

Rogue One - Governor Tarkin / Death Star Lucasfilm/Disney

Rogue One’s most unexpected casting decision was perhaps the ILM special effects technology that allowed actor Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin more than twenty years after his death. So far, the response to the gimmick has been mixed. Some viewers felt that it ruined the entire movie, while others didn’t notice it at all.

Both sides, however, have acknowledged that the CGI used to recreate Grand Moff Tarkin is eerily authentic. Disney digitally recreated Cushing’s face for the movie, and while the effect is jarring when in motion (something is ever so slightly off), a screenshot is nearly indistinguishable from the real Peter Cushing. There now seems to be a collective understanding that CGI performances will soon climb out of the uncanny valley. It won’t be long before digital actors are just as convincing as living ones.

That realization has triggered a certain existential dread about the state of Hollywood, leading to some speculation that actors are about to become obsolete. After all, why wouldn’t you want to make another Star Wars movie with Alec Guinness, especially if it means that you don’t have to bother with shooting schedules or craft services? Will studios opt to cast deceased actors in their movies once they realize that they don’t have to put up with living ones? Is Hollywood acting — like so many other professions — about to die out thanks to the ongoing march of progress?

Well, no

In fact, it’s an emphatic no. Digital performances are not going to become the norm. Dead actors will not be headlining the next crop of summer blockbusters, and that’s not likely to change even if Disney could get James Dean to sign on for Star Wars: Episode VIII.

For one thing, a CGI performance does not negate the need for a living actor. Peter Cushing’s latest ‘role’ is no exception. In Rogue One, Grand Moff Tarkin is based on the work of British actor Guy Henry. It didn’t become a Peter Cushing performance until post-production, and the effect was convincing because it was built around a human skeleton. No matter how good the technology becomes, there’s no way to know how a deceased actor would have chosen to play a part. Someone needs to be on set or in the special effects studio to make those decisions and actors still need to be credited for those contributions, just as Andy Serkis is deservedly praised for the motion capture work that brought life to CGI characters like Caesar and Gollum.

More to the point, studios will never rely on CGI performances because Peter Cushing cannot sit down for an interview on The Tonight Show. When a studio casts an actor in a movie, that person is being hired for far more than one performance. Casting is also an integral part of marketing, from teens crushing on a new heartthrob to veteran actors making the prestige rounds during awards season. Deceased actors simply cannot fill that celebrity void. They can’t sign autographs at Comic Con or share their favorite sex tips for the cover of Cosmo, and that meta-culture is far too important to ignore in the modern media climate.

Chris Hemsworth and Robert Downey Jr. riding a tandem bike on the set of Jimmy Kimmel Live during the Avengers: Age of Ultron press tour.
The cast of Avengers: Age of Ultron on Jimmy Kimmel Live
Randy Holmes/Disney ABC Television Group/Getty Images

That’s particularly true in the case of an ongoing franchise like Star Wars. The Force Awakens turned John Boyega and Daisy Ridley into stars overnight, and their public personas are just as integral to the fan experience as anything that happens in the film. They also ensure that people will keep talking about Star Wars in between the annual release dates. A picture of Oscar Isaac eating Cheetos with a pair of chopsticks or Daisy Ridley’s latest Instagram post about her workout routine is shared as eagerly as any trailer.

Similarly, the casting of Donald Glover as Lando Calrissian in the Han Solo spinoff generated a massive outpouring of excitement and goodwill. Disney won’t sacrifice that kind of buzz for a digitally de-aged Billy Dee Williams, to say nothing of an actor that is already deceased. Social media has accelerated those trends — there are more ways than ever to connect with a celebrity — but the impulse dates to the origins of popular culture and there will always be a demand for contemporary icons for fans to admire.

That’s why actors will still have plenty of job security in the years ahead. Digital performances are possible because directors can meticulously control every single frame of a motion picture. They can make sure that everything is perfect before anyone has a chance to see the film. The same is not true in a live interview setting, where an actor needs to have both a physical and intellectual presence in real time.

With that in mind, it doesn’t make fiscal sense to film a movie with a fabricated cast. It’s cheaper to cast one actor than it is to hire an entire CGI team for one role, and there’s normally more value in letting that actor be a celebrity than there is in turning that actor into Peter Cushing.

In fact, a digital recreation is an attractive option only in very specific instances like those that led to Rogue One’s Tarkin. Disney wanted a fictional character rather than an actor, and recasting the role was less appealing because Tarkin dies in A New Hope and is little more than a cameo in Rogue One. It was a brief, one-off bit of fan service, and Disney was willing to gamble because Felicity Jones and Diego Luna were there to shoulder the media responsibilities for the film. There was also less artistic guesswork because Guy Henry was able to mimic Cushing’s previous interpretation of the role.

Paul Walker, digitally recreated for Furious 7
Universal Pictures

Movie studios will continue to experiment with the technology in anticipation of similar scenarios, but chances are that they’ll be used sparingly, when continuity or decency is a bigger concern than marketing. For instance, recasting Paul Walker for the final scene of Furious 7 would have been disrespectful, but a digital recreation served as a heartfelt tribute to the actor.

The point is that such examples are the exception, not the rule. The larger the role, the less likely it is that a studio will spring for a digital performance. The lead of a film is expected to promote the brand in casual environments, and those are too frequent and too unpredictable to plan out in a computer. Even if that kind of simulation does become possible, fans would still want to know that there’s a real human behind their favorite characters. It’s comforting to know that actors share their concerns. Celebrities are just like us, and that’s what makes them more relatable.

CGI performances will keep getting better, but the fact that directors can doesn’t mean that studios will. It’s more beneficial to hire a living actor, and that won’t change no matter how convincing the technology becomes.


Eric Weiss is a Toronto-based freelance writer and the Games Editor at Dork Shelf. You can find him on Twitter @Harry_Houdini.