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Hollywood Necropolis: The Dangers of Digital Performers

The first sign of serious trouble was in December of 2016. The plot of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” explained how a group of rebels managed to steal the Death Star plans that Princess Leia is fleeing within the opening of 1977’s “Star Wars.” Early in “Rogue One,” a character goes to talk to Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing in the original “Star Wars.” Cushing passed away in 1994. Normally, this kind of problem is smoothed over by simply recasting another actor in the part. “Rogue One”'s solution was to recreate Cushing in post-production. Guy Henry was the body double on set and provided the voice; the rest was VFX. The results were hideous, both ethically and aesthetically: a dead-eyed, gummy-mouthed homunculus that did not resemble a living person so much as a computer-animated character from a lesser Saturday morning show of the time. 

“Rogue One” was bookended with another such moment. At the cost of the protagonists’ lives, the plans finally reach Princess Leia. Only “Leia” was another body double, played by Ingvild Deila, her face digitally molded into a Carrie Fisher who resembles not so much her 1977 self as a Second Life avatar. The moment was more ghoulish than intended because Fisher passed away 11 days after “Rogue One” arrived in theaters. By the time I saw it, she was already gone. 

Two ghosts in one film, but not ghosts really. To say “ghost” suggests something of the original person remains. What I saw were two promissory notes to the stockholders of the Walt Disney Corporation that nothing could ever stop the IP train, not even death.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife

It didn’t stop there. “Ghostbusters: Afterlife” went further, resurrecting a smeary copy of the late Harold Ramis, which spoke digitally recreated words exhorting the living cast members to never let the dream of Ghostbusting or endless sequels die. This summer, things finally came to their terminally grim conclusion in “The Flash,” where a necropolis of beloved, departed actors looked on with slightly melting faces as Barry Allen (Ezra Miller) sped through space and time in a flop that cost Warner Brothers Discovery at least $300 million. That “The Flash” bombed should be a heartening sign that audiences don’t want to see Hollywood playing Burke & Hare. But one would be foolish to assume the studio heads will give up the dream of not having to pay actors ever again so easily.

In “Rogue One,” Disney at least made an effort to secure the permission of Cushing’s estate. They have been much less scrupulous of late when it comes to the living. Take Alexandria Rubalcaba, a background actor on the Disney+ series “WandaVision.” According to an NPR article, during her time on the show, she and other background actors were herded into a trailer with a digital camera rig, scanned, and neither paid for this nor told what Disney might use the footage for. Discord grew among the various unions as it was revealed during contract negotiations that Disney and other corporations who use scanning technology intended to own the likenesses of the actors in perpetuity without ever paying the actor for using them. 

Needless to say, Rubalcaba is one of many SAG members currently on strike against this kind of behavior and similar schemes as Hollywood executives chase the magic beans of streaming and AI off a fiscal cliff. It was always a lie to say Hollywood studios were ever arts-first, box office-second outfits, but the dismal past few years have seen even the attempts at caring about a watchable product melt away, leaving gloopy lumps of content, for which no residuals need ever be paid to anyone. It’s the logical last step of late capitalism to try to have profit without labor. But even that is a lie, as “AI” is nothing but a plagiarism machine, coughing up blurs of faces with too many teeth and hands with too many fingers, scraped from the stolen work of human artists.

The concurrent strikes of the WGA and SAG-AFTRA attempt to staunch the bloodletting of livelihoods that Hollywood’s most heavily paid persons are gleefully overseeing. It will be a bleak American entertainment landscape if the unions lose. You would think the runaway success of “Barbie” and “Oppenheimer” at the box office—two films driven by unique visions and with casts of real actors giving engaged lived-in performances—would convince anyone of the importance of real, well-compensated people making art. But greed makes you dumb as well as a terrible person. Hollywood and Silicon Valley are locked in a mutual murder-suicide pact. They do not seem to understand that if they win, the future they envision of living dead actors marching across screens, mouthing dialogue composed by ChatGPT, will kill Hollywood. And what’s more, it deserves to.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow

“Rogue One” was not the first to bring back a late performer through digital trickery. When Brandon Lee died due to a production accident while filming “The Crow,” his face was matted onto a body double. A similar method was used in “Gladiator” when Oliver Reed died during production. “The Sopranos” used it when Nancy Marchand died during filming. (It looked hideous, one of the show's thankfully briefly lived mistakes.) In “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” the film took the gimmick of its wholly digital sets to recreate the late Laurence Olivier, whose artificially at least matched hyperreality around him. The difference between those examples and “Rogue One” is that previous productions only reached for it as an emergency life preserver to complete a project, regardless of its ultimate ethics. 

“Sky Captain” was not a financial success. “Rogue One” was enormously so. “Rogue One”'s use of reanimation and de-aging was made with nostalgia, not memory, as its primary goal.

The poisonous twin of memory is nostalgia. Memory can be beautiful, but it can remember flaws, the hard things, the mistakes that shouldn’t be forgotten. It is bittersweet because it reminds you of the fragility of all things. “The Limey”'s use of the film “Poor Cow” for flashbacks of lead Terrence Stamp as a younger man is memory. The fading from black and white of the impossibly young and beautiful Stamp to the worn, still beautiful face of Stamp in the colors of a sunset in Los Angeles reminds you that time passes, that people get old. “Remember you are mortal,” says memory.

Nostalgia is soft, narcotic. Nostalgia lies that you are immortal, and so are the things you love. That “The Flash” is the most brazen and appalling attempt at nostalgia of late is not a coincidence. The superhero boom has been a useful accomplice to the stripping of worker power every tech “disruption” is ultimately about. After removing the idea that the actor or director matters and that instead, they serve the IP, the Marvel Cinematic Universe factory took away sets, costumes, and props that unionized workers built, made, and decorated so that they could be tinkered with in post by un-unionized, underpaid, and vastly overworked VFX workers.  

The poison is rapidly spreading through the bloodstream of the entire industry. “The Flash” doesn’t just do poorly by actors long dead; it turns very much alive performers like Henry Cavill and Sasha Calle into blurry Colorforms of themselves. It's a preview of the fate the executive suite wants for all actors—jpeg files they can jangle like keys in front of audiences. 

It says so much about the contempt they and AI people feel for humanity that the urge to create—to say "I was here," let alone to want to make a living from it—is so utterly alien to the people running the studios and streaming platforms. They think you can order art like a lousy pizza, and like a lousy pizza, it slides out the computer looking hideous. The people who used to run studios never cared about art more than they cared about making money. But at least they used to understand audiences would rather pay to see images made by humans. 

Jessica Ritchey

Jessica Ritchey is a writer based in the orbit between Washington D.C. and Baltimore. She credits a VHS copy of "Singin’ in the Rain" as her introduction to a love of movies.

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