Fwd: Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors

From: Wade T.Smith (wade_smith@harvard.edu)
Date: Sun Jul 08 2001 - 15:33:15 BST

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    [BTW, any mention of digital actors without mention of the film 'Looker'
    is inexcusable....]

    Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors



    LOS ANGELES, July 7 Aki Ross, a versatile young actress who stars in a
    movie to be released this week, rakes slender fingers through
    wind-rippled hair. The light contracts her pupils and glistens on
    sweat-streaked cheeks, as her eyes sparkle with the eerie illusion of

    It feels eerie because Aki is composed only of pixels, and she is created
    and manipulated by a computer animator who works his mouse like a weaver
    at his loom. Aki makes her bid for stardom as the heroine of "Final
    Fantasy: The Spirits Within," a fully digital film to be released on
    Wednesday by Columbia Pictures that is loosely based on a popular series
    of video games.

    "The eyes are one of the single biggest things that make people alive,"
    said Andy Jones, the animation director. "We're moving the eyes around to
    make the character seem like it's thinking and feeling for itself. Like
    there's a soul."

    In Hollywood, many people believe digital production and distribution
    will revolutionize the way movies are shot, edited and sent to a
    multiplex near you. Already, the computer has made it possible to
    convincingly recreate ancient Rome and a dogfight over Pearl Harbor.
    Until now, just about all that has remained beyond the computer's grasp
    has been the actor's realm: too nuanced, too human, too unknowable for
    the animator's skill.

    But with movies like "Final Fantasy," filmmakers are beginning to create
    photo-realistic computer characters that, at least in fleeting moments,
    will try to convince the audience that actual humans are on the screen.

    It is called photo-realistic animation, and "Final Fantasy" promises to
    carry it further than any movie has.

    Not everyone is overjoyed.

    "I am very troubled by it," said Tom Hanks, who does not like to think
    that his carefully chosen roles and hard-fought performances can be
    tampered with by after-the-fact computer auteurs, or that someone might
    make unwanted use of his digital self. "But it's coming down, man. It's
    going to happen. And I'm not sure what actors can do about it."

    The specter of the digital actor a kind of cyberslave who does the
    producer's bidding without a whimper or salary has been a figure of
    terror for the last few years in Hollywood, as early technical
    experiments proved that it was at least possible to create a computer
    image that could plausibly replace a human being. But as "Final Fantasy"
    makes its way into theaters the first of what promises to be a string
    of movies trying to put this challenge to the test many wonder if the
    threat is as real as it once seemed, or if it simply takes computer
    animation down a fruitless cul-de-sac.

    "I believe that I have used more digital characters than anyone," said
    George Lucas, whose Jar Jar Binks, a virtual character in "Star Wars:
    Episode 1 The Phantom Menace," helped raise concerns in Hollywood. "But
    I don't think I would ever use the computer to create a human character.
    It just doesn't work. You need actors to do that."

    Steven Spielberg put it even more succinctly: "It's a nonissue."

    But this has not alleviated the concerns of actors like Mr. Hanks, who
    are suspicious of the ways their images could be used in photo-real
    computer animation. And the Screen Actors Guild, which has closely
    monitored the use of digital actors since the emergence of Jar Jar Binks,
    says it will do so with even more vigor as photo-real characters actually
    begin to appear on the screen.

    At Harbor Place, a new skyscraper on the downtown Honolulu waterfront,
    where Square Productions, famous for its trend-setting video games, has
    set up a filmmaking division, the computer's aquarium-blue glow filled a
    small cubicle on the 16th floor. It is as close to halfway between Tokyo
    and Hollywood as you can get without treading water.

    "There is a Japanese saying that comes from the art of dollmaking, a sort
    of catch phrase, that the face is the life of the doll," said Hironobu
    Sakaguchi, a celebrated Japanese video-game creator who is making his
    feature-film directing debut with this movie.

    For now, it is impossible for computer-generated films to be made without
    actors. Actors are often used to capture the movement of characters, and
    as yet, no one has been able to figure out how to do without the voices
    of actors like James Woods, who personalizes the quasi villain General
    Hein in "Final Fantasy."

    The greater concern is not that digital actors will replace movie stars
    even the most optimistic projections of the technology put that prospect
    far in the future but that the technology may make it easier for the
    unscrupulous to make improper use of actors' images (or of digital
    creations that are strikingly reminiscent of celebrities).

    So far, the most significant legal challenge came in 1999, from Robyn
    Astaire, the widow of Fred Astaire: she sued the Fred Astaire Dance
    Studios for using images from her late husband's films in advertisements.
    Her suit failed, but she took her case to the California Legislature,
    which passed a bill making clear that the rights to celebrity images
    remained with the heirs for 70 years after the celebrity's death.

    Columbia Pictures showed about 17 minutes of "Final Fantasy" to some
    entertainment writers in the spring, and has only recently begun to
    screen the finished film for industry audiences. Many who have seen parts
    of the film have reacted with a mixture of astonishment and
    disappointment. "When it works, it works," one rival studio marketing
    executive said. "And it works more often than I thought it would."

    Since 1982, when computer-generated images made their first appearance in
    a feature film with "Tron," a not-so-secret goal of many computer
    animators has been to create convincingly lifelike human characters. Many
    have even dreamed of using the technology to bring long-dead stars back
    to life or, more intriguingly, to create virtual images of a performer in
    youth and then graft that digital skeleton over the shape of that same
    actor, now middle-aged or older. The prospect delights many directors,
    who dream of an endlessly pliable performer whose work can be digitally
    tweaked to generate exactly the desired effect.

    "Filmmaking is always going to be a collaborative art," the director Ron
    Howard said. "But we are getting to the point where the director will
    have even greater control over the look and feel of the film, even down
    to the individual performances."

    And producers can see the benefits of a performer who requires no salary,
    no days off, no coterie of agents and publicists, one who could be called
    into service at any time to promote or endorse anything, with every
    nickel going into the producer's pocket. The topic will be explored
    intriguingly in "Simone," a film currently in production for release in
    2002 from the writer-director Andrew Niccol ("The Truman Show"). Al
    Pacino plays a movie producer whose star storms off the set. He responds
    by secretly replacing her with a digital actress. (The filmmakers are
    being coy about whether Simone will be played in the film by a live
    actress, a digital one or some combination of the two.) The problem is
    that he succeeds too well. Simone Sim One, get it? becomes an
    overnight sensation, and the producer must prolong the illusion that she
    is an actual person.

    The technological tools that might allow computer animators to create
    convincing digital actors would also give producers and directors the
    ability to alter or augment a performance, whether the actor likes it or
    not. In the climax of "Contact," the director Robert Zemeckis wanted a
    long, emotional close-up of the star, Jodie Foster, as she stared into a
    visionary Eden beyond the stars. But in the last few seconds of the best
    take, one of Ms. Foster's eyebrows involuntarily twitched upward, Mr.
    Zemeckis explained. "So I just went in and moved the eyebrow," he said.

    While this instance falls far short of actually reaching in and creating
    a performance out of whole cloth, it certainly points in that direction.

    "I know Tom is worried about it," said Mr. Zemeckis, who has frequently
    collaborated with Mr. Hanks, including on the Oscar-winning "Forrest
    Gump." In that 1993 film, Mr. Zemeckis used what were then the latest
    digital tools to implant the actor's image into actual historical scenes,
    though not to alter Mr. Hanks performance.

    "But I've taken to making digital scans of all of the actors in my
    movies," Mr. Zemeckis said. "I know some are worried about what uses will
    be made of it, but think of what we could have complete digital
    versions of actors at various stages in their life."

    Many of the biggest leaps in computer animation are introduced at
    Siggraph, the annual gathering of the nation's computer graphics and
    animation specialists. One of the most talked-about efforts of recent
    years was a film shot for Seattle's new rock 'n' roll museum. The film
    appears to be a performance by a young James Brown. But it isn't. The
    filmmakers cunningly superimpose the performance of the current-day Mr.
    Brown, who is 68, over a digital skeleton of the performer as a young man.

    "The next hurdle, the next step, will be a soliloquy or a dramatic
    performance," said Joshua Kolden, who worked on the James Brown project.
    "It won't be long."

    But it will be trickier, he and his colleague Andre Bustanoby agreed,
    because people are accustomed to the signals that tell us whether someone
    is sincere, threatening, flirtatious, sober or plain off his noodle. "The
    problem with human faces is that you get just a little bit off, and it
    immediately becomes very disturbing," Mr. Bustanoby said.

    Eventually, if animation technology and artistry continue to improve, it
    will be possible for directors to reach deeper into a filmed performance
    doing more than simply unarching an eyebrow. If preview audiences
    didn't like the ending where the hero died, it's easily fixed. And
    cheaply, too. The hero can just be digitally resuscitated and sent off
    into a virtual sunset.

    "The advantage of computer- graphic actors is that they don't do any
    complaining," Mr. Sakaguchi said. "The vision I have is to take the
    characters that we have in this movie and basically help them be viewed
    as real actors and actresses. And so, we sort of become a talent agency."

    Well, exactly.

    Once the goal of creating a photo- real human character is reached if
    for no other reason than to show that it is indeed possible many
    computer animators believe that the next generation of animated films
    will move away from photo-realism. Already, many projects under way are
    tending toward a warmer, almost impressionistic look.

    "Once you sit down in front of that box, it's infinity in there," said
    Neil Eskuri, who was the digital effects supervisor for Disney's
    "Dinosaur," a hybrid of photo-real computer animation and live-action
    footage. "Given enough time, you can make that box do anything."

    Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

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