We See Dead People: Why Dead Celebrities Are Coming Back to Life through Digital

We live in exciting and dangerous times in the entertainment industry.

First, the excitement: I recently saw Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman on the big screen, and I was impressed with the technology Scorsese used to de-age the lead actors, Robert De Niro, 76, Al Pacino, 79, and Joe Pesci, 76. The movie required them to play characters over a span of decades. Scorsese used digital to take years off their faces in order to play their characters at much younger stages in their lives.

I was skeptical when I heard about the approach, but the movie won me over. The technology made the movie better because The Irishman could tell a sprawling story over a period of time using the same actors to show the ravages of time and their violent lives on their faces. It wasn’t perfect: in a few scenes, De Niro’s face looked oddly sculpted and flat. But in the context of a three-and-half-hour movie, the flaws registered barely a flicker.

The de-aging technology in The Irishman is exciting because it challenged actors in ways they had likely never experienced. Even though their faces were altered, the actors still needed to learn how to adapt the way their bodies moved to match how their younger faces looked.

According to a widely reported story, the 79-year-old Pacino needed to do retakes of one scene in particular until he could authentically portray the movements of a character who was supposed to be 49 years old. And I think that kind of challenge is good. All the actors delivered masterful performances, and the technology pushed them to do so.

De-Aging Catches On

The Irishman not the only film using de-aging. Many films ranging from The Curious Case of Benjamin Button to Avengers: Endgame have used it. For example, in 2019, Captain Marvel took years off Samuel L. Jackson’s face (and impressively so) to depict a younger version of Nick Fury. Ang Lee’s Gemini Man re-created a younger version of Will Smith although the negative reaction to Gemini Man suggest the movie is a cautionary tale about the limits of the technology

But not since The Curious Case of Benjamin Button has a move so ambitiously made de-aging integral to the story.  The Irishman is a landmark moment that opens up possibilities for directors and writers to create stories with broader narrative arcs spanning the passage of time without needing to find multiple actors to portray the same character in one movie. 

That said, I think the technology needs to be managed in limited doses to be effective. Consider the epic film, The Godfather, Part II. Robert De Niro won an Academy Award for playing a young Don Corleone, only two years after Marlon Brando also won an Academy Award for playing an aged Don Corleone in The Godfather. To this day, they are the only two actors who have won Academy Awards for playing the same fictional character. But what if de-aging technology had existed in the 1970s? Would Francis Ford Coppola have been tempted to cast Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Part II instead of De Niro?  Audiences would have been denied two compelling performances by two different actors at the peak of their artistic powers, each interpreting a character in their own way.

Dead Stars Are Coming Back to Life

Now for the danger: a new company is forming in order to bring dead stars to life in digital form. As reported by Janko Roettgers in Variety, Worldwide XR will incorporate digital movie stars into experiences such as virtual reality, augmented reality, and movies. In fact, a digitally recreated James Dean already has a small role in a forthcoming movie, Finding Jack. Worldwide XR holds the rights to more than 400 celebrities, ranging from Jackie Robinson to Jimmy Stewart. 

Worldwide XR CEO Travis Cloyd told Variety, “Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die.”

Some present-day stars – as in real, breathing humans – were not thrilled. Here’s what Chris Evans tweeted:

Elijah Wood wasn’t too thrilled, either:

Bette Midler was not having any of it:

As Variety reported, Cloyd reacted with a shrug:

“It’s disruptive,” acknowledged Cloyd. “Some people dislike it.” However, he argued that the emergence of digital humans was inevitable, and promised that his company would vet any potential partners to make sure that they would do the celebrity in question justice. “We will do our due diligence,” he said.

In addition, Cloyd noted that digitally recreated stars go beyond the movies: we can also experience them in virtual and augmented reality, which opens up all kinds of possibilities, such as John Belushi crashing a bachelor party (for presumably a steep fee) or Audrey Hepburn guest speaking at your next corporate event.

“There is a lot more to come for James Dean,” Cloyd said. “Think of it as James Dean 2.0.”

Disruption Has Consequences

Cloyd has a point. Disruption upsets people – especially people who see their jobs at risk. Because that’s what we’re talking about when we bring dead stars to the screen: when a dead James Dean takes up screen time, a living actor loses a role. 

On the other hand, the possibility of James Dean in a theme park via virtual reality or augmented reality seems less threatening. I don’t hear anyone complaining about those applications (yet). It’s the incorporation of a digital James Dean into a movie that has the actors up in arms. And I don’t like the idea, either. I dislike the notion of a digitally recreated person taking a role that a living actor could play. I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.

The Technology Will Be Huge

But the technology is not going away. In fact, I predict it’s going to be huge. Already we’re seeing audiences respond favorably to touring holograms of musicians such as Roy Orbison and Frank Zappa. According to Rolling Stone, a hologram tour of Frank Zappa sold out, with people paying up to $125 a ticket.

Reports Kory Grow of Rolling Stone:

. . . a Roy Orbison hologram tour last year was a financial success, selling 1,800 seats on average per show. There’s enough demand that those tours have more dates lined up — Orbison’s will be touring with one of Buddy Holly this fall — and holographic versions of Ronnie James Dio, Whitney Houston, and Amy Winehouse will be hitting the road later this year. It’s a trend that marks a new wave of holographic tours that is much more sustainable than one-offs, like the Tupac hologram at Coachella in 2012.

But why is there a market to see dead stars when there are plenty of compelling living actors and musicians working today? I think a few factors are at play:

  • Nostalgia is powerful. As Don Draper said in Mad Men, “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent.” Nostalgia explains why the 1980s have a hold on popular culture right now: when a popular show such as Stranger Things packages and sells the comfort of another time, we long for a past that holds us in a comfortable embrace. If you lived in the 1980s, you might remember the anxiety of the times, such as the ever-present Cold War throughout most of the decade. But we tend to view the past with rose-tinted glasses, and pop culture encourages us to do so.

Like it or not, we’re going to need to make way for dead stars in our lives. And maybe the detractors will warm up to the idea. In the era of the Marvel franchise, actors routinely perform with CGI-generated characters; perhaps it’s not a stretch to go toe-to-toe in a fight scene with a youthful Burt Reynolds from his macho Deliverance days or respond to the seductive power of a Gentlemen Prefer Blondes-era Marilyn Monroe? (Or maybe Brad Pitt could have squared off with the real Bruce Lee in Once upon a Time in Hollywood?) And for movie purists like me? Well, I was wary of de-aging technology, too,

Exciting and dangerous times, indeed. 

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1 Response to We See Dead People: Why Dead Celebrities Are Coming Back to Life through Digital

  1. Sharon Wyper says:

    You may be missing the real creative input required to implement digital technology,
    when you say, “I want to see how an artist takes a role and shapes it in context of the times we both live in. A dead person cannot do that.” The person designing the digital actor recreation is certainly not dead, just unseen and unsung. If that person is not an artist, the fake James Dean is going to be a big embarrassment to everyone concerned.

    • ddeal says:

      Well said! I would add that even if the person behind the scenes is an excellent artist, at best we are getting some sort of approximation of James Dean out of context of the all the influences (cultural, personal, etc.) that would have shaped Jqmes Dean during the times he lived. Thank you for weighing in.

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