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Does CGI cross ethical boundaries when it depicts deceased actors?

  • AuthorKate Baucherel
  • Published Friday, February 10th, 2017
  • Comments0

I am a huge “Star Wars” fan.  My parents took me to see the first film when I was 10 years old. The queue stretched around the block, and I’ve never forgotten the frisson of excitement I felt when the star destroyer slowly filled the screen. I spent my teenage years wanting to be Han Solo. (Actually, I still do. My husband is more of a Chewbacca, and my kids cosplay Rey and Kylo Ren; the fights are impressive.)

One of the performances that stayed with me from that first viewing was Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin, Governor of the Empire’s fearsome battle station, the Death Star. Cushing was already a wonderfully sinister legend, even to a 10-year-old British girl. Watching “Rogue One,” I was delighted to see the character of Governor Tarkin appear on screen almost forty years on, apparently unchanged. However, rather than blanket praise for the work of the Industrial Light and Magic team (the special effects wizards behind the whole Star Wars franchise), the character’s physical appearance, so famously linked to that of the deceased actor, caused a babble of concern across the press and social media. Catherine Shoard, film editor of The Guardian, declared this resurrection “a digital indignity”: I beg to differ.

The technology of CGI – computer generate imagery – is already familiar to most cinema goers, and has made possible the effective realisation of sci fi and fantasy films including the Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Harry Potter series. We’ve applauded the rapid improvement from jerky approximations of fantastic creatures to smooth and seamless character integrations. So, why did so many people find Rogue One’s digital resurrection morbid, disrespectful, or downright unethical?

Resurrecting actors is nothing new

First, let’s debunk the myth that this is the first time a movie has involved the CGI portrayal of an actor. Of course it isn’t! I first recall CGI being used in “Gladiator” (1999), when Oliver Reed died three weeks before the end of filming. Director Ridley Scott’s careful use of offcuts and a bit of (at the time) new-fangled CGI, patching Reed’s features onto body doubles, ensured that he gave a complete performance from beyond the grave. It was quite fun watching the film and trying to spot the CGI elements. Even before that, in 1988, the accidental death of Roy Kinnear during the filming of “The Return of the Musketeers” required the producers to get creative. The technical wizardry we have now was in its infancy, so Kinnear’s role was completed by a double and a sound-alike, who both went uncredited. Although the mechanics were different, the principle was the same: The show must go on!

A number of TV commercials have also been produced and aired after their stars died. These advertisements have attracted more attention than films that have undergone role completion editing, possibly because it’s more obvious to audiences that the star has had no physical part in the production.  Steve Bennett-Day, Executive Creative Director for Havas Helia, voiced popular concerns about CGI in his 2016 article for Campaign, a branding and marketing publication. He articulates the perceived difference between ‘respectful’ ads and what he calls the ‘creepy’ use of CGI. In his article, he compares accidents of broadcast timing where the shooting has been completed, and genuine tributes like the re-broadcast of a much-loved British ad in response to demand after the passing of the star, against poorly-judged CGI depiction. He specifically criticises the use of images of the late Audrey Hepburn in a Galaxy chocolate ad, and also notes a ‘downright awful’ (sic) Saatchi & Saatchi print ad that featured an image of the late Kurt Cobain showing off Dr Marten boots under his angel robes. Bennett-Day’s criticism once again draws attention to the key ethical question that was raised by “Rogue One”: When the CGI performance we’re watching is a completely new creation, has a line been crossed?

Protecting our identities

Photographers are all aware of the rules around image copyright. A photographer who takes a picture legally owns that image, with certain exceptions: in particular, if one takes a picture of artwork, the copyright for the photograph rests with the creator of the original artwork. With an individual, Publicity Rights are applied in a similar vein. So, if the likeness of an individual is used to create a CGI character, where do the rights reside? This is an issue both of privacy and of earnings.

Legal protection of Publicity (Personality) Rights differs from country to country and from state to state, a complex patchwork of legislation even in the United States alone.  We know that the “Star Wars” team sought and was granted permission from Peter Cushing’s estate to create the CGI representation of Governor Tarkin as portrayed. The late, great Robin Williams used his will to restrict the use of his name, signature, photograph and likeness for 25 years from his death, according to clause 4.3.1.1 (a) in the legal documentation published by the Hollywood Reporter. Did the shrewd star anticipate that CGI technology could eventually be used to resurrect dead celebrities? The provision in Williams’ will avoids reliance upon inconsistent publicity protection against an increasingly complex and global technological backdrop.

Why CGI for Rogue One?

We might wonder why the character of Grand Moff Tarkin was given the CGI treatment where others were not. Rebel leader Mon Mothma was played by Caroline Blakiston in the original trilogy, and by Genevieve O’Reilly in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith” and in “Rogue One” – a seamless transition, as the actresses were of the same build, and the character’s neat dark bobbed hair, robes and chains of office were straightforward to recreate. However, Peter Cushing’s fabulous cheekbones and sunken face were his trademark, and as such gave a unique feel to the Tarkin character. Lookalike Australian actor Wayne Pygram successfully portrayed Tarkin in a short cameo in “Episode III: Revenge of the Sith,” and there have been questions around why Pygram did not reprise the role. We don’t know the answer, but Pygram has done very little acting work since “Star Wars” and the TV series “Farscape,” and it’s possible that he was simply not in a position to take the part. For continuity of character, and without an easy lookalike solution, it would appear that Rogue One’s producers had no choice but to turn to Industrial Light and Magic.

Actor Guy Henry, the performer you see behind the CGI overlay of Cushing’s features and who is rightfully credited for the role of Governor Tarkin, thinks that creating more completely new performances by deceased actors through CGI is an unlikely scenario. When interviewed by Hollywood Reporter’s Aaron Crouch, he said, “I can’t really see why they would [do the same again] …… This was very specifically to recreate this character in a way that served the story of Rogue One.” In this context, it seems that the CGI work in “Rogue One” was really a continuation of the same performance in “A New Hope,” a way of ensuring that the show did go on.  It’s interesting to note that while a Carrie Fisher CGI cameo closed Rogue One, and was in any case produced during her lifetime, a statement has recently been issued by the Star Wars team to reassure fans that for future films “Lucasfilm has no plans to digitally recreate Carrie Fisher’s performance as Princess or General Leia Organa.” This seems to bear out Guy Henry’s assertion, and will come as a relief to those who found the Rogue One Tarkin character disturbing.

Animation vs. reality

If anything underlines the realistic nature of the character in “Rogue One” as a technical accomplishment rather than a new Cushing performance, it’s the nomination for Outstanding Animated Performance in a Photoreal Feature in the upcoming Visual Effects Society Awards. Grand Moff Tarkin is up against Newt Scamander’s Niffler, the cutest of Fantastic Beasts in the latest excursion into the Harry Potter universe.

We praise CGI when it delivers fantastic creatures to our screens with such veracity. We are delighted that they integrate seamlessly with the real and interact with human actors in a way that, previously, we could only imagine. We recognize that there are actors creating those personalities behind CGI masks. Andy Serkis, for example, is an accomplished character actor: his live performance as Gollum set against the final CGI version in this video of Weta Digital’s work is worth watching, for the performance as much as the insight into the creative animation process.

For years, we have seen realistic animations of the human form in films and video games. We’ve also witnessed crossovers in the other direction: for instance, Angelina Jolie played a real representation of animated character Lara Croft in the “Tomb Raider” films. It seems that discomfort with the CGI representation of Grand Moff Tarkin stems purely from the fact that he is not a fantastic beast, and we recognize the features of the fictional character as those of a real deceased fellow human. With Tarkin, we are committing the ultimate sin of confusing the actor with the character.

There is nothing unethical about the CGI character of Grand Moff Tarkin: it is appropriate to the story, fundamentally the continuation of an existing performance, and it’s a grandly successful creation by Guy Henry and the Industrial Light and Magic team. However, the controversy serves as a warning that the digital world is moving fast, and that considerations of privacy may need to take this technology into account, too.

Kate Baucherel is a published author, speaker, trainer and coach, and co-founded community software company Ambix. She has two young children, and lives in the north of England. Find out more at www.katebaucherel.com, or follow @katebaucherel on Twitter.

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