You’ve probably seen Rogue One by now, and if you haven’t – go buy a ticket! Once you’ve seen it you’ll undoubtedly have thoughts about the appearances of Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher as Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, both looking as they did in 1977’s A New Hope. Both were admittedly played by stand-ins who had their faces altered in post, but did these cameos add to the film or signal a worrying trend in blockbuster cinema? Reviews editor, Bertie Archer, and writer Joe Brennan joined me to debate the answer.
Tom: So what were your first reactions when you saw Tarkin on screen?
Bertie: Amazed. It was a real thrill – as a fan – to see the character and actor back on screen, but I saw it first in 3D and it was painfully obvious (after that beautiful reflection shot) that it was computer-trickery.
Joe: Leia looked a little bit… creepy, but I was impressed by the Tarkin scenes. I suspect this technology is better suited for older characters.
Bertie: I think you’re right about the age – maybe wrinkles are good for ironing out the, well, wrinkles in the technology.
Tom: Logically it feels like it should be the opposite. CGI is good at creating shiny, ‘too perfect’ things. The crags and wrinkles of old age would seem harder to replicate.
Bertie: Certainly in 2D (70mm if I’m being snobbish) it was pretty convincing. One of the first things my father said after the credits was that he was sure Peter Cushing had passed away!
Tom: Either way I was very impressed with both creations. Maybe I just need my glasses prescription updated, but to me, if I hadn’t known both were digitally created I could have believed they were real actors. At least for a few minutes.
Joe: I also thought it was a compliment to Cushing as an actor. He couldn’t ever be replaced by another person, so the only way to feature Tarkin was using Cushing’s image.
Bertie: I absolutely agree with that. Plus it wasn’t just a gimmick, it made a lot of story sense too. Both in his introduction, his constant pressure on Krennic and the way it ended, how can you explain the origin of the Death Star without him?
Tom: I agree it made story sense, but was it a convincing performance? Did it feel like someone puppeteering a CGI creation or an actual person acting?
Bertie: It did have a touch of the videogame cutscene to it.
Joe: I feel we need the opinion of someone who had no prior knowledge of either Cushing or Tarkin to truly answer that question.
Bertie: OK, allow me to bring my wife into this.
Tom: It’s not that kind of party Bertie.
Bertie: She didn’t notice that it wasn’t a human performance enough to be taken out of it – which fans or people with prior knowledge probably were – but she certainly thought there was something peculiar about him. It’s the uncanny valley – it’s hard to put a finger on what it is, but we are very skilled as a species at spotting fakes.
Joe: I think it’s the eyes.
Bertie: Did he blink? On third viewing I tried to count how many times he did and it certainly wasn’t high.
Joe: Not the blinking so much as subtle eye movements, like pupils dilating, and slight twitches. Stuff that we don’t consciously notice in other people, but might be conspicuous when they’re absent.
Tom: So as someone who’s a fan of Star Wars and knows who Peter Cushing and Grand Moff Tarkin are, I obviously noticed within seconds that this must be a CGI creation. But in the moment I didn’t really care. And I think the reason is simple. We’ve become so used to CGI in our films that it honestly feels real a lot of the time. Normally it’s explosions or backgrounds CGI’d into existence, but with films like the latest Planet of the Apes series or The Lord of the Rings we’re increasingly used to seeing real actors performing opposite walking, talking, humanoid CGI beings. I noticed that Tarkin wasn’t ‘real’, but in terms of how I was invested in the story, I didn’t much care.
Bertie: I enjoyed his appearance, but it’s not very Star Wars is it? As a series it’s always been proud of practical effects and that’s the point I guess: if it fits the film it’s absolutely OK. But do not let the SAG read that.
Tom: OK, so if we all agree that in this specific case it worked well, how do we feel about it on general principle? I’d like to bring in a fantastic and underseen film from a few years back called The Congress. It stars Robin Wright sort of playing herself as an actress near the end of her career who agrees to a new studio contract. This contract isn’t for just one film, but effectively signs away her image rights forever. She can tick boxes to limit what her image is used for (no sex scenes etc.), but essentially she surrenders all creative control. The implication is that this is the new way the movie business will be run. It’s cheaper, it’s more malleable, and you can watch all your favourite stars, even if they’re dead!
Bertie: I have a hard time believing it is actually the future of filmmaking. I think audiences will ask why a real actor couldn’t be used.
Joe: If you’re in the public eye, it’s inevitable that your image will be used after you die, for better or worse. For years Marilyn Monroe’s image has been used to sell cheap tat, and awful quotes have been misattributed to her. Lindsay Ellis did a video on Marilyn and apparently there’s a company that specialises in getting the rights to use the image of dead celebrities
Bertie: But there is a difference between continued use of an existing image and making entirely new ones and calling them Marilyn Monroe.
Joe: Bertie, I’m not sure if it will be the future of film, but I think Disney definitely want it to be. See, I think that Disney must be working on this technology to perpetuate the MCU. Eventually Robert Downey Jr. et al. are going to be too old.
Joe: They want Star Wars and Marvel to be as immortal as Mickey Mouse to print money. The mortality of the actors is the only thing holding them back.
Tom: You make a good (if outrageously cynical) point Joe. Studios are already in the business of recycling things they know audiences love to secure safer profits – Rogue One itself is an example of that – surely recycling performers they know audiences love is just the next logical step?
Bertie: Do you think it will be cheaper to painstakingly create acting by computer?
But you’re right – as standalone as Rogue One is, it still relies on existing characters and actors to some extent. It couldn’t completely cut the cord.
Joe: I think once the method is perfected it will become cheaper.
Tom: In a few choice cases. Namely, the blockbuster end of the scale. When you consider how much someone like RDJ earns, a bit of CGI as a one-off payment is probably cheaper.
Bertie: So could it be a bargaining chip? “Look Robert, we can make you digitally, so just take the lower offer and act it yourself”.
Tom: At the moment this is mainly a feature being used in franchises to maintain continuity – it serves the story – but it will go further because Hollywood loves pushing the envelope whether it’s a good idea or not.
Bertie: As well as The Congress, there was an Al Pacino film called S1m0ne about just that, if you want something more lowbrow and less good. It’s about making a photorealistic actress to replace one who drops out. Interestingly, they didn’t use a CG-actress to make the film.
Tom: I can see some rogue VFX whiz doing just that in the next few years. Making a short featuring all CGI ‘actors’ and not telling anybody. Just claim they’re real people until someone finds out otherwise. I reckon we’ll believe them.
Bertie: One day – and quite soon – there will be a photorealistic feature made up of full-CGI actors. Inevitably, the critics will call the acting wooden. Then, a few years later, they’ll get it right.
Tom: I don’t think we’ll ever have an all-CGI cast, mainly because you still need name actors for promotion, and we all know how important that is. But resurrecting a few marquee names for well-placed cameos is something I can see becoming very popular.
Bertie: I’ll take that bet Tom.
Joe: There will also be some avant-garde stuff with seemingly real actors glitching out halfway through the film. It could be an interesting creative technique.
Bertie: If someone told you now that Jennifer Lawrence had always been CG, would we suddenly turn on her?
Tom: It would explain a lot.
Joe: I turned on her four years ago.
Tom: So, this has been a fascinating debate, but let’s wind it up now. What are your final thoughts on the uncanny CGI in Rogue One and what you think its future will be in the film business?
Joe: This technology still has a way to go, but it was a lovely tribute to Peter Cushing. I think Disney has been toying with this technology for years to make its various franchises last forever (as long as it’s profitable). It’s slightly sinister on their part, but only time will tell if Disney actually pull a stunt like that
Tom: Personally, I was a fan of CGI Cushing’s performance, and it was something that felt genuinely integral to the film. But, that said, I am uneasy about how this technology will be used going forward. I think there’s going to be an increasing temptation to pull this kind of stunt now the technology is capable and it could lead to studios recycling content and now performers more than they do already.
Bertie: Uncanny, yes. Unnecessary, no. Because it fitted the plot so well, Tarkin was pulled off despite the depiction not being quite perfect. Leia was a much more obvious CG-insertion, but also felt like a cameo rather than a part.
For the film industry as a whole, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the technology used more and more but with a healthy dose of skepticism from audiences and journalists (not to mention outright hostility if it threatens actors). There’s more than one leap of faith needed to turn it from gimmick to regular appearance, but life finds a way.