What if you could bring the dead back to life? 

What if you could bring the dead back to life? 

You must have heard the urban legend of Walt Disney, by now.

When Walt Disney died in 1966 his body was cryogenically frozen and is currently held in a vault beneath Disneyland. When society has the ability to bring the dead back to life, Walt Disney will be first in line so that he can survey his empire. What will he think of the modern day Disney company? I think he would be amazed by the quality of the films being produced but perhaps he would be appalled by his company’s ethical practices. Then again, maybe he wouldn’t. By some accounts Walt Disney was a shrewd, cunning and ruthless businessman.

Of course, this legend is pure nonsense for three reasons. One, Walt Disney was cremated two days after his death. Two, we don’t have the ability to cryogenically freeze people with today’s technology so it definitely wouldn’t have been possible in 1966. Finally, the story is very similar to that of Mr Freeze from Batman who first appeared in print several years before Walt Disney’s death. Like most legends there is a grain of truth to the tale. There is a vault, called the Disney Vault, which holds original copies of Disney animated films such as Snow White and The Lion King beneath Disneyland. The Disney Vault is very real (although now defunct) but Walt isn’t buried in it.

The urban legend does raise the question, what if you could bring the dead back to life.

You may not be aware but there is a new Disney film in development called Finding Jack. The film is still in pre-production but will revolve around one American’s soldier attempt to save over ten thousand military dogs following the end of Vietnam War. While the cast have yet to be recruited we know that the main character will be portrayed by James Dean. If you are unaware, James Dean was a famous actor from the Golden Age of Hollywood who stared in films such as East of Eden, Giant and most famously Rebel Without a Cause. Dean died in a tragic motorbike accident in 1955, over sixty years ago. The same James Dean will star in Finding Jack as a CGI render.

While Finding Jack has already received criticism from the film industry and the general public (a point that we will return to later) it’s important to realise that bringing the dead back to life to “perform”, as it were, isn’t a new concept. As a species we have been obsessed with the idea of bringing someone back from death, from Jesus being resurrected in the Bible to Doctor Frankenstein stitching human corpses together to birth new life. One interesting take on the idea of resurrection comes from Sir Jeremy Bentham. Bentham was a famous philosopher, jurist, and social reformer during the Victorian era who helped design Britain’s prison systems. Bentham wanted to supply a good quality of education to the masses in order to improve society. He believed that the best way to do this was via Auto-Icons. Let us take Isaac Newton as an example. The concept was that if you wanted to learn about Newton’s laws of motion you would attend a lecture in London and watch Newton’s corpse (which was controlled like a puppet on strings) give a lecture. You would learn directly from the source and have a first hand account. While this idea is… interesting to say the least, Bentham lacked the technology and resources to preserve humans bodies for long periods of time and the idea didn’t catch on.

If you’ll indulge me, I want to talk about Jeremy Bentham for a moment. When Bentham died he left instructions for his body to be turned into an Auto-Icon, so that he could educate after his death. Unfortunately the preservation process went wrong resulting in Bentham’s head being shrunk, similar to the shrunken heads used by Amazon tribes. Bentham’s head and body were put on display at the institution he founded, the University College of London, but his head was stolen by students and held for ransom in Scotland. When UCL, who were trying to distance themselves from the image of Bentham’s corpse, refused to pay the ransom the head was left in a train station and recovered by the Scottish police who mistook Bentham as the victim of a serial killer. The police returned Bentham to UCL and since this event his remains are kept in a locked display case. During UCL board meetings Bentham is wheeled to the board room and marked as present on the minutes although he does not vote on any matters

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon complete with waxed head. Please note that the original shrunken head rests between his feet.

Back on topic. The reason Bentham failed was because he couldn’t preserve the corpses. While we still can’t cryogenically freeze bodies or bring the dead back to life via a bolt of lighting we do have other methods. Once such method are Deepfakes. A Deepfake is when an existing video, audio or text is altered to give it a new meaning. Under normal circumstances Deepfakes are used for comedy such as the alternative Queen’s speech, posted below.

However, as the video hints, Deepfakes can have a more sinister purpose. Deefakes have been used to create revenge porn by posting someone else’s head on someone else’s body. They can be used to impersonate military figures and perhaps most alarmingly Deepfakes can be used to convincingly spread mis-information to the masses.

The film industry have been using deepfakes for several years. Film crews use CGI to either age up or age down an actor or to render a dead actor back onto the screen. The Star Wars franchise is particularly guilty of this. Peter Cushing returned to his role of Grand Moff Tarkin for 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story despite having died twenty two years previously. In the second season of Disney+’s The Mandalorian, Mark Hamill resumes his portrayal as Luke Skywalker but was de-aged thirty years, to match the age of his character.

Mark Hamill playing Luke Skywalker in Star Wars Episode Six (left), The Mandalorian (Center) and The Book of Boba Jett (right). The images in the middle and right are CGI.

This technology is prevalent outside of the film industry. I’ve already covered on this website how the rapper Two Pac appeared via hologram in 2010 and how Aimi Eguchi, a member of the Japanese girl band AKB48, existed as a hologram having been made from the most attractive features of her band mates.

Now it is time to address the elephant in the room. Is bring a dead person back to life via Deepfakes, or any other means, ethical. And is it legal? I will start with the later. It depends…

Under normal circumstances a celebrity would employ a team of lawyers to assist them in legal matters such as their likeness or image being used without their consent. When a celebrity dies their rights are normally passed to their family or estate. When these rights expire, however, they enter the public domain where anyone can use them. Within the past couple of decades a new industry has been founded called deadrities, the business of dead celebrities. Business in this industry buy the rights to dead celebrities from their family members or estates and then keep these celebrities likenesses in a catalogue. When an advertising or a film company wish to use a dead celebrity they borrow these rights for a ridiculous sum of money.

One such company who collect the dead is Disney who have added a clause to their actor’s contract claiming that they will own their character’s image after their death. These actors are digitally stored, in a vault if you will, for later use. Another company is Worldwide XR who have collected a staggering amount of celebrity rights. I can’t link to their website but please see the screenshot below.

It it truly astounding how many deadrities they own and I recommend that you visit their website by searching for them on Google.

The word celebrity is synonymous with the word brand and brands exist to create a profit. While this business model is obvious when you think about celebrities such as the Kardashians who slap their name on perfume and clothing it is less obvious when you think about celebrities such as Roald Dahl. These brands, these celebrities continue to make profit, long after their deaths and whoever own these brands collects their profits.

Now onto the the more difficult part of the question. Is it ethical?

It depends on the project, situation and the celebrity. While Bentham had pure intentions and this technology has been used for good (Paul Walker was re-added to the Fast and Furious Franchise after his death to conclude his character’s story arc) there are countless questionable examples. Bruce Lee’s likeness was used to promote chocolate bars which he never ate in life. Amelia Earhart’s voice was used to sell turkey sandwiches after the famous pilotless crashed. There is currently talk of Disney reinserting Stan Lee back into Marvel films for his now signature cameo appearances.

What do you think of the deadrities industry? Would you aware that it existed prior to reading? Let me know in the comments and media and let me know your thoughts on Finding Jack as well. I’ll reserve judgement till I see a trailer but I’m already apprehensive about the project.

Take care and I’ll see you next time.

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