Sep 20

How can you bring a dead actor back to life?

In 2013 the Walt Disney company produced a short film titled Get a Horse which was shown before Frozen in cinemas. In Get a Horse, Mickey Mouse attempts to save Minnie by traveling between the 2D 1940’s cartoon world and the modern day cinema. If you want to watch the film in question there is a recording below but the quality isn’t perfect. It’s about eight minutes long.

While Frozen was a runaway success, Get A Horse is notable in it’s own right. It was the first time Mickey Mouse was seen in a film of his own on the big screen since 1995, the film also featured Oswald the Lucky Rabbit the original Disney mascot and finally the film marks the first time that Walt Disney supplied fresh lines of dialogue for the iconic character since his death.

That final fact may seem wrong at first glance. Walt Disney died in 1966 and Get a Horse was released in 2013, forty seven years after his death. While most of Mickey’s dialogue was re-used lines from his original cartoons the producers were unable to find a recording of Walt Disney saying the word “red” in Mickey’s voice. Mickey comments that his clothes are red when he transcends from the cartoon world to the real world for the first time and without this comment, producers felt this plot-beat would lose some of its impact.

This situation raises the question: How can you bring actors back from the dead… and should you?

There are several ways to bring an actor back to life, excluding necromancy.

Option 1: Recast the actor

The first option is the most obvious, replace the actor. Depending on the film in question the two actors don’t need to be identical or even similar in appearance. The most famous example of this is Doctor Who. When one actor decides to leave the role of The Doctor, the character will regenerate and take on a fresh appearance. The act of regeneration was explained away as being a biological skill that all Time Lords process. Another notable example is James Bond. Bond has changed his appearance several times in his franchise without any other characters commenting on this.

Option 2: Replace the actor

If another actor is not available then the crew could replace the actor with… something else. For example in Star Wars: Rogue One Peter Cushing was replaced by a CGI version of himself as Cushing has passed away years before. While some fans did question the end result there is no denying that the CGI Cushing could pass as human or at least humanoid.

Another example is Paul Walker who died in a car crashing during the production of the film Furious 7. Walker died without completing his scenes so stand ins were used for distance shots and his face was added by CGI to his brother’s body in scenes where Walker needed to be clearly visible on screen. The director of the film James Wan has refused to confirm which scenes contain the real Paul Walker and which contain CGI.

A confirmed CGI Paul Walker

Option 3: Use the unused

If the actor is iconic and linked to the character in the general public’s consciousness then the crew may consider using unused material from previous films. The most famous and recent example of this is Carrie Fisher who died between the production of Star Wars Episodes 8 and 9. Fisher’s death resulted in Episode 8 being reshot so that scenes of Fisher originally intended for this film could be used in the sequel to give her character a more satisfying conclusion in the franchise.

Option 4: Use what you have

The final option is to use and edit what footage you have. If an actor is unable to record lines then used footage can be altered to create new material. This is easier for characters who do not have physical moving mouths such as Darth Vader or animated mouths such as Mickey Mouse. This is also the approach the production team behind Get A Horse used. The team spent two weeks scanning archive footage of Walt Disney, extracted three audio samples of Disney saying ruh, eh, duh and sliced them together to form the word red.

But should you?

There is a clear analogy between bringing an actor back to life and Frankenstein creating his monster. While Disney’s decision to edit recordings of Walt didn’t cause any controversy, there are many ethical questions for all of the above approaches. Many fans were upset that Peter Cushing’s likeness was used after his death without permission and many wondered if Cushing would have approved of the decision. Bruce Lee’s family were outraged when his likeness was used to promote a chocolate bar shortly after his death, a product that Lee was never associated to in life. The quality of these adverts have also offended many of Lee’s fans. In the video below a rubbery looking Lee is seen speaking in a language he didn’t know, advertising beer he didn’t drink.

The fear of people’s image being used after their deaths has caused some actors to seek legal advice. Robin Williams made a legal agreement with Disney that his interpretation of The Genie from Aladdin could not be used in any new content after Williams’ death. Williams’ likeness is also protected by law so it can not be used after his death to promote products or films.

There is also the threat that with our advancing technology people will not be able to tell the difference between CGI and the real thing. Did you know that most adverts for fast food restaurants such as McDonald’s use CGI to make their burgers look more appealing? In 2012 the rapper 2pac was recreated as a hologram and performed on stage to thousands at Coachella Live with many believing that the artist was physically there.

A Deep Fake is when the likeness of one person is swapped with another so it appears they are saying things they normally wouldn’t. In the recent climate of fake news, Deep Fake technology has become a powerful weapon and while it is currently used to make parody videos online there are fears it can be used as a powerful propaganda weapon.

Deep Fake videos stem from the film industry using this technology for their own means. While there are many ethical debates about if this practice should continue, it is worth considering that this technology can also cause terrible amounts of harm. It is for this reason (and the emotional harm it could cause to relatives) that I believe actor’s likenesses shouldn’t be used after their deaths but I’m eager to hear your thoughts.

Let me know what you think in the comments section or on social media and I’ll see you next time.

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