The End of Age and Death in Cinema
Hollywood, and the film industry at large, may very well have won one of their biggest battles: the one against age and death. The use of CGI (computed-generated imagery) to alter the appearance of actresses and actors on the big screen has been spreading like a wildfire in recent times, sparking debates about both the artistic merit and integrity of the practice, and the ethical quandaries behind it. We are not talking about common digital special effects or make-up, rather, about the techniques of digital de-aging and CGI superimposition of passed actors onto models, both human and computer generated. With this brief article I intend to offer very little in terms of possible solutions to such debates, and possibly even stoke said fires, my only true aim being to force the reader to be aware of the discourse and come to terms with the existence of such practices, so that they may form an as informed and critical opinion as possible on the matter.
First of all, what are we even talking about? Digital de-aging is the practice of altering the face and body of an older actress or actor by using CGI, in order to make them appear like their younger selves. This may be done just because they are more marketable if they look younger, such as for Tom Cruise in the Universal classic “The Mummy” (2018)(1), or for plot reasons, for instance when storytelling devices such as flashback are used, as we can see for Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny” (2023).
The superimposition of passed actors on models in turn is exactly what it sounds like: the facial features of a dead actor are digitally superimposed on a model that functions as a proxy, bringing the passed star back to life, at least for the duration of the film. This may be done by using a lookalike actor whose features are then further digitally modified, such as in cases like “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” (2016), where actors Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila were used respectively to bring back on screen Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher; or it can be achieved by purely digital means during post-production, as it happened recently for Christopher Reeve´s “cameo” in “The Flash” (2023)(2).
Finally, in addition to the visual portion of the equation, voice simulation softwares are getting better and better, being able to produce quite believable imitations starting from rather limited material, and if there is a category of people where material to feed such A.I.s does not come scarce is in fact actors.
Now that the technical side is clear we can start asking ourselves a few questions, such as: what has cinema become? Is this ethically acceptable in any way or form? Isn´t this artistic grave robbing? Or possibly, the more calm and collected: what now?
The film industry naturally sees enormous potential in such practices: why try to find the next Indiana Jones if we can keep using Harrison Ford´s likenesses, making the character immortal in his likenesses? Why try to discover and market new stars when we can extend the “shelf life” of already established ones?
What may be more surprising is that such practices aren´t necessarily anything new, they only have been exponentially strengthen by the technological jump CGI has produced in the industry. I´m not just talking about the obvious use of makeup and prosthetics, although they do definitely fit in the discourse, but strictly of visual enhancement of actors´ features.
Let me make a couple of examples. While watching many films from the 40s and 50s, if one pays attention, they can notice that while the whole film is in perfect focus and exposition, as soon as an older famous actress, known in her youth for her beauty, appears on screen the image becomes slightly blurry, acquiring a dream-like quality to it: that is simply a Vaseline-covered filter over the camera lens, which smoothens the wrinkles and facial features of the actress by having her ever so slightly out of focus, resulting in her looking younger.
Surely though they wouldn´t superimpose someone´s face on other actors in the past, right? Well, let me introduce you to the phenomenon of the “Bruceploitation” (3), or the exploitation of the likenesses of "The Bruceploitation Trilogy" (2002) by Dean Meadows and if you know Italian the video "Bruce NecrofiLee - The Late Show con Karim Musa" (2016).
world renowned actor Bruce Lee after his death. This weird 70s sub-genre started with the simple use of lookalikes, and then devolved, or degenerated, in the superimposing of cut-outs of Bruce Lee´s face onto a models (4) and in the use of real footage of Bruce Lee´s public funeral as film scenes (5). The fact a practice may have been used in the past does not however make it acceptable back then, nor now, and both of them have been met with strong critical opposition, from within as well as from outside the industry. Is there then any merit to such opposition? In my opinion, most definitely, yet it is also important to distinguish between the two techniques.
Digital de-aging, as I view it, is just a tool, no different from make-up, prosthetic work, VFX, sampling, Autotune, and so many others typical of the entertainment industry: it can be use tastefully, it can be used horribly, it can even be used creatively, for example by forcing on the viewer the uncanny valley effect (6) it normally accidentally produces. As long as the CGI artists are paid fairly for their work and the actresses and actors are not coerced into accepting the use of the tool (7), although I personally do not like it or find it superfluous most of the times, I see no real problem with it.
Defenders of the technique of superimposition may then argue that as long as legal consent is ascertained and everyone is appropriately paid there is no reason to deny the fans the likenesses of their favourite characters forever. Someone of the utilitarian sort may argue that as long as the rights go to the passed actor´s estate, and benefit their families, there is no moral economical issue. Some extremely cynic aesthete may even bring forward how the very purpose of photography and cinema is immortality, time-proof fame and recognition, and this may very well be its natural evolution.
What makes superimposition different for me then? Artistic consent and approval. However tangled in legal issues, NDAs, studio meddling, actresses and actors will always have the possibility to praise, criticize or disown one of their performances. As long as they are alive they can engage critically with their work, both in their private life and through participating in public discourse. A dead actress or actor does not have an opinion, they do not have any chance of expressing artistic consent, approval or condemnation of a work featuring their likenesses.
This is where the fallacy lies: their immortality is not connected with their age, their being alive or not, their likenesses, but with their performances, good or bad. These are what creates capsules in time on which no one has any further artistic control (8), and both they and the audiences may only choose to engage critically towards them. The timelessness of finite performances and the natural praxis of critical analysis of art are what make performers and cinema itself immortal, not the physical or digital immortality of its stars.
In conclusion, let the dead be dead, unless of course you are shooting a zombie film, in which case, you have my interest.
(1) It´s not a Universal Classic, it´s terrible, just a really egregious example of the practice.
(2) The irony of calling it a cameo is not lost on me, hence the quotation marks.
(3) I´m not joking, it exists, google it. If you want to know more about it I suggest (4) See "Game of Death" (1978)
(5) See "The Dragon Lives Again" (1977)
(6) Involuntary negative emotional response to what seems almost, but not quite human.
(7) These are big "ifs" sadly.
(8) At least in theory, another controversial recent phenomenon is that of editing old films and making original versions unavailable. Discussing this would need another entire article, so I´ll just say: buy physical media and oppose studio re-editing of old properties, it is an act of historical erasure.
P.s.: This is my final article for Klang, as I am about to finish my Master and I do not know what the future holds, so I wish to thank the team of editors of Klang Magazine for accepting my articles and for the wonderful work they have done with the magazine; all the other writers for the great pieces they have written and shared with all of us; and wish the best of luck to the team for the future, I will most definitely remain an avid reader! Stay Klang! Edoardo Mazzini is based in Munich. He runs a horror film club. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.