This post is going talking a bit about Rogue One and will be veering a bit into spoiler territory but since it has now been out for a few weeks I’m assuming you’ve either seen it or aren’t interested in seeing it.
What I’m going to be talking about is the appearance of dead actors in new films, something that has become topical with the sad passing of Carrie Fisher. As well as appearing in 2015s The Force Awakens, Fisher had apparently signed up to appear in two more Star Wars films, I’ve heard that her filming for the next film was already done but according to media reports Disney – the owner of the franchise – is now in line to receive an insurance payout of perhaps $50 million. Which rather hints that she was due to have at least a reasonably significant presence in the third of this series. The question is will Disney write her character out or will Fisher appear anyway because recently we’ve seen there are options. Now those of you who have seen Rogue One will be aware that the film has seen the return of the character of a young Princess Leia and much more significantly Grand Moff Tarkin, as originally played by Peter Cushing. Since Cushing passed away more than twenty years ago and Fisher was no longer a teenager, these roles were fill by CGI ‘actors’, which has raised a few eyebrows.
Now in some respects Rogue One brings nothing new, in others it breaks very new ground. There is a long record of deceased actors appearing in new works via clever editing, smoke, mirrors and body doubles. If an actor dies during the course of a shoot – like say Oliver Reed during Gladiator – it is pretty reasonable that directors use what they have to fill in the blanks. Equally it doesn’t seem wrong reuse and modify clips of older work to do something new with an older actor/character combination – an example of this was a Doctor Who episode of a couple of years ago where with some careful editing the then current Companion was shown interacting with the Doctor’s various incarnations, the actors being in many cases being long dead.
Where Rogue One breaks new ground is with Grand Moff Tarkin, who supporting character with a significant speaking role. This is not old material being reused or a double being used to fill in few seconds of film, but instead new material wearing the mask of a diseased actor. Now in my opinion the digital Tarkin did not look entirely convincing but that’s just a question of technology and sooner or later we are going to get CGI character indistinguishable from flesh and blood. What will happen then. Will we see old favorites digitally rise from the grave to act again? In the case of Tarkin, I would imagine Cushing’s original contract allowed for his image to be used (pretty much the reason all those thousands of Star Wars toys could be produced) although I doubt anyone in the late seventies was thinking terms of digital actors.
I’d be really curious to know what the legalities of using someone’s appearance actually are. I know there have been court cases in regards merchandising, so I assume that if someone decided to make a new John Wayne film, agreement with his estate would have to be reached. As I write this the thought crosses my mind that I’ve been focused on actors and actresses but there are biopic films – there’s one on Jackie Kennedy this year – could movie studios choose to not to use an actor at all and instead have the image of the actual historical personage? Could we see digital actors that were never real people star in what are at least nominally live action films – an idea which know films have at least brushed against already.
The answer I suspect will, as if is so often the case boil down to this stuff:
Certain actors are inherently ‘bankable’, their appearance in a film guarantees a certain return. There is an entire secondary industry revolving around the private(ish) lives of celebrities. Would audiences be as attached to a collection ones and zeroes? Ultimately the entertainment industry will follow the money. If it makes sense on the profit and loss account it will happen. If it does not, then no matter how good the technology gets it will not. In end it will be tastes of the majority that make the decision.