LOS ANGELES (AP) — The men bringing James Dean back to life for an upcoming film are aiming to not only give his digital likeness a role, but a whole new career.
Dean scheduled appearance in the Vietnam War film “Finding Jack”, and the possibility of future parts, comes as digital aging and dubbing of real-life actors have moved from cinematic trickery to mainstream practice. And it breathes new life into old arguments about the immortality and dignity of the dead.
“Our intentions are to create the virtual being of James Dean. It’s not just for one movie, but it’s going to be used for many movies and also for games and VR,” said Travis Cloyd, CEO of Worldwide XR, who is leading project design Dean. “Our goal is to build the ultimate James Dean so he can live on any medium.”
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Legally, they have every right to do so, via the full consent of the Dean estate and his surviving relatives.
“Our customers want to protect these precious intellectual property rights and the memories they have of their loved ones,” said Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, the legal and licensing company that has long held the title like Dean. “We have to trust them. … They want the image and memory of their loved one to live on.”
Dean is an obvious candidate for revival with his image as the epitome of Hollywood and the brevity of his life and career – he died at 24 and made only three films: “East of Eden”, ” Rebel Without a Cause” and “Giant”. ”
Roesler and Cloyd did not obtain the rights from Warner Bros. to use footage from those films, but they have a large amount of stills and dozens of Dean’s TV roles.
“There are thousands of images we have to work with,” Cloyd said. “What we typically do is take all of these images and videos and run them through machine learning to create this asset.”
This will be in addition to the work of a replacement actor using motion capture technology as is commonly done with CGI characters, as well as the voice over of another actor.
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Announcement of the role last year prompted a swift reaction, with responses like that from ‘Captain America’ star Chris Evans on Twitter: “Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write some new John Lennon tunes. The total misunderstanding here is shameful.
“I think there’s definitely something cynical and unpleasant about bringing particularly long-dead actors back to life,” said Terri White, editor-in-chief of film magazine Empire. “The reaction to people like the James Dean news actually showed that I think most people don’t really want that.”
For the people behind Project Dean, backlash is as inevitable as they believe eventual acceptance will be. Cloyd envisions a Hollywood where even living actors have a “digital twin” to help them with their work.
“It’s disruptive technology,” Cloyd said. “Some people hear it for the first time and are shocked by it. But that’s where the market is going.
The often clumsy rebirth from the dead has occurred for much of Hollywood’s existence.
Images of Bela Lugosi, combined with a double holding a cape over her face, were used in 1959’s “Plan 9 From Outer Space”, released after the horror star’s death. Bruce Lee’s “Game of Death,” left unfinished before his death in 1973, was completed using voice dubs and overdubs and released five years later. ‘The Fast and the Furious’ star Paul Walker died in 2013 before filming ‘Furious 7’. His two younger brothers and others acted as stand-ins so his scenes could be completed.
Even Lennon, and many other deceased historical figures, were digitally resurrected in 1994’s “Forrest Gump.”
But recreation and resurrection technology has taken a major leap forward in quality and prestige, with the extensive aging and re-aging used in Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman”; a young Will Smith returning digitally to star opposite the current version in last summer’s “Gemini Man”; and Carrie Fisher, whose young person briefly returned digitally in 2016’s “Star Wars: Rogue One” and reappeared after her death, in “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.”
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These cases have drawn scattered skepticism — both about the quality of the technology and the appropriateness of the retakes — but the public has largely accepted them.
Guy Williams, visual effects supervisor at filmmaker Peter Jackson’s Weta Digital, said the possibilities present a moral dilemma.
“The question isn’t so much whether you use someone’s likeness to bring them back or create a digital version of them, it’s what you do with them and how much respect you show them,” Williams said. . “So for me, that’s the most important question.”
Pablo Helman, the visual effects supervisor behind the aging of Robert De Niro and others in “The Irishman”, says he considers this moral dilemma in his work.
“The main question you have to ask yourself is why do it?” Helman said. “You know, just because you can do it doesn’t mean you should, you know? That would be one thing that I always question: is it in the service of the story?”
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Ethical considerations are likely to give way to market forces if viewers decide they find digital versions of deceased actors plausible and acceptable.
“I think the moral question is going to be decided by the public and society, if they want to see this,” said Bill Westenhofer, visual effects supervisor on “Gemini Man.”
Dean will play a supporting role in “Finding Jack,” which is currently in pre-production. Limited screen time is, at this point, as far as those who recreate it want to go. But they hope the digital avatar can eventually carry a movie, maybe even play James Dean himself at different ages.
“At some point there will be the James Dean biopic,” Cloyd said. “I think the technology is not necessarily there today to take the risk.”