Avatar techniques could turn back the clock on ageing actors

Via SlashDot comes a brief soundbyte (or rather textbyte) from James Cameron, who posits that the pore-deep photorealistic CGI techniques that allowed him to create current box-office smash Avatar could be used to recreate the youthful looks of popular actors who’re getting on a bit…

… Cameron’s facial scanning process is so precise—zeroing in to the very pores of an actor’s skin—that virtually any manipulation is possible. You may not be able to totally replace an actor—“There’s no way to scan what’s underneath the surface to what the actor is feeling,” the director notes—but it is now theoretically possible to extend careers by digitally keeping stars young pretty much forever. “If Tom Cruise left instructions for his estate that it was okay to use his likeness in Mission Impossible movies for the next 500 years, I would say that would be fine,” says Cameron.

More Tom Cruise movies? After he dies? That’s about the strongest justification for banning this technology entirely, if you ask me…

Less fine, at least to Cameron, is bringing long dead stars back to life. “You could put Marilyn Monroe and Humphrey Bogart in a movie together, but it wouldn’t be them. You’d have to have somebody play them. And that’s where I think you cross an ethical boundary…”

Hmm… so what if you had Monroe and Bogart played by AI simulations of Monroe and Bogart, based on every second of footage available in the digital cultural corpus? Would that be crossing an ethical boundary? Would it be the same boundary as having someone else (made of meat) play them beneath the mask of CGI? And anyway, didn’t they threaten/promise [delete as appropriate] that CGI would mean the death of the overpaid “box office draw” Hollywood superstar? Answers on a postcard, please…

More seriously, though – how do we expect new and exciting actors to rise through the ranks if we just keep recycling the faces of the past? Or will the actors of the past become characters in their own right, adding another sort-of-meta layer to the cinema experience? “[Actor X] is currently wowing cinema-goers with his flawless performance as Clint Eastwood reprising the epochal Dirty Harry role…”

2 thoughts on “Avatar techniques could turn back the clock on ageing actors”

  1. Paul,

    I think your points here are well taken. On the other hand, we have become totally accepting of very high levels of manipulation in audio recordings. Surprisingly, a lot of this started happening with classical music. Virtually all current recordings have some form of manipulation. Even the old pre-digital music recordings were altered by combining passages from multiple sources.

    As you say, the worst unintended consequence of this technology would be losing potentially great actors. I do think that the web might alleviate this. This past Sunday’s New York Times Arts & Leisure section has a fascinating article on new methods for independent movie makers to distribute their work.

  2. What fascinates me is that Cameron really thinks Avatar-level technology looks good enough to do this. It does not. We can still see the digital seams. It works in what is essentially an animated movie, but combine it with real people, and we’d still be deep in uncanny valley.

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