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Should we really be using CGI to bring back dead celebrities?

The news that James Dean will be brought back to life using CGI in 2020 prompts a moral dilemma – should we be bringing actors back to life for the sake of movie making?

James Dean, the Hollywood legend who famously starred in Rebel Without A Cause, died in a fatal car crash in 1955. Now, almost sixty-five years later, his likeness is to be recreated using cutting-edge CGI and placed as the leading role in the new Vietnam-focused film Finding Jack. Production company Magic City Film has purchased the rights to use his image from his family.

The news has sparked debate surrounding the moral implications of using CGI and holographic recreations of pubic figures, given that they cannot consent to their likeness being used in productions they may not necessarily have agreed to in life. One of the most obvious examples of this that comes to mind is Audrey Hepburn in Galaxy’s 2013 advertising campaign, which saw her re-animated likeness used in a vintage-style commercial.

At what point do iconic actors and actresses become public property instead of individuals, and is it right to blatantly use someone’s personal image for a brand or project they may not have even approved of if given the choice?

The rise of digital recreation

Questions like these are becoming increasingly pressing as virtual recreations of young or deceased celebrities crop up across the entertainment industry.

Tupac was famously shown as a hologram during Coachella in 2012, a digital version of Grand Moff Tarkin was created for 2017’s Star Wars: Rogue One, and Will Smith is set to star alongside a virtual version of his younger self in Gemini Man. Digital recreations of human beings are a serious business for top bill production companies, and they will become more common in the future as tech speeds up.

Whether it’s ethically right to do so, however, is another question entirely. The news about James Dean has been flooding Twitter as A-list celebrities chime in on what they feel is an immoral move from Magic City Films. Elijah Wood, Chris Evans, and Zelda Williams all voiced strong disdain at the announcement, describing it as ‘puppeteering the dead’ and a ‘shameful’ move.

Why recreating people in CGI probably isn’t the best idea

It’s not hard to see why there’s such a strong backlash to recreating James Dean on screen. Commoditising the image of a dead person and moulding it to say or do things under the control of a company should strike any sane person as somewhat creepy.

The entire process removes the authenticity and intention behind the face of a person. Recreating the likeness of someone digitally and then broadcasting it for the sole purpose of making money off their notoriety is cynical and unsettling. No matter how realistic someone looks, or how convincing their digital avatar is, we will always know it’s not them. Seeing someone’s likeness without the soul of the person is instinctively a bit eerie.

All moral principles aside, the increase in digital versions of famous pop icons could also cause problems in a practical sense. Is it possible that we may reach a point where actors, actresses, and musicians are more valuable and easier to use for branding when they’re dead? We’re already seeing problems arise online with the use of deep fakes, which take someone’s facial features and manipulate them into saying or doing things that they never actually did. A similar situation could end up extending after death, leaving popular figures at the mercy of contracts, licenses, and their families to use their image correctly – rather than themselves. It all feels a little too Black Mirror for me.

One person who apparently didn’t see any of this negativity coming is the director of the new Finding Jack film, who told the Hollywood Reporter he ‘doesn’t really understand it’, comparing the situation to Carrie Fisher’s digital self in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Of course, the difference here is that Fisher was recreated in a part she was already scheduled to play, in a film she was aware of and approved. James Dean, who died well before CGI was even a thing, has no say in his appearance being used for the lead role of a 2020 film. It strikes me as exploitative and unnecessary, if anything – why not just give the part to a young and upcoming actor who’s, you know, alive?

What’s next for CGI recreation?

There’s no real sign that digital avatars and hologram versions of celebs is going to stop or slow down. As the tech required gets easier to implement, cheaper to produce, and better understood by the industry as a whole, it’s very likely that we’ll be seeing more of this in the future.

I’d argue that what’s needed is proper rules and regulations surrounding the use of celebrity image after they’re deceased. Using a ‘fake’ version of a person as the lead to a film they never knew existed just feels wrong to me, and a step too far. Of course, James’ estate did agree to using his image for Finding Jack, but at this point how many people actually knew James when he was alive? Having tighter rules in the film industry would stop this kind of thing from happening, and allow for celebrities to only appear in projects they expressed interest or approval in whilst they were alive. Giving a voice back to the face of the person, and not simply to the company that owns the rights to their image, is paramount in my opinion.

There is a way to use this technology in a respectable way but for now the industry is too early in its infancy to be properly controlled. The tech that goes into the work is extraordinarily impressive and seeing actors and actresses brought back to life is genuinely amazing. But, by the same token, it’s also undeniably odd and unnatural to see animated faces that have no idea they’re being used in the way they are, and a broader conversation within the industry needs to happen in the near future.