RE: Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors

From: Vincent Campbell (
Date: Mon Jul 09 2001 - 12:49:27 BST

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    Subject: RE: Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors
    Date: Mon, 9 Jul 2001 12:49:27 +0100 
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    Any technology that offers the potential to put Tom 'I'm so up my own arse,
    only James Cameron is worthy of my company' Hanks out of business has to be

    He used to be a nice guy making half decent light comedies, but no, he had
    to start thinking he was an "Actor", and the Academy bizarrely agreed with


    > ----------
    > From: Wade T.Smith
    > Reply To:
    > Sent: Sunday, July 8, 2001 3:33 pm
    > To: Memetics Discussion List
    > Subject: Fwd: Movie Stars Fear Inroads by Upstart Digital Actors
    > [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
    > intelligence.
    > 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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