Can you clone a movie star?

The numbers behind the industry.
March 6 2006 4:01 PM

Can You Clone a Movie Star?

A report from Hollywood's digital frontier.

Tom Hanks in The Polar Express. 
Click image to expand.
Tom Hanks in The Polar Express

The ultimate step to eliminate what remains of the distinction between cartoons and movies is the creation of computer-generated actors. Video games have already moved in this direction. Electronic Arts released a game of From Russia With Love last year that employed a digital clone of Sean Connery as he appeared in the 1963 movie. Can Hollywood be far behind?

Numerous actors—including Arnold Schwarzenegger, Jim Carrey, Tom Hanks, Natasha Henstridge, Tom Cruise, and Denzel Washington—have "gone under the beam" (i.e., have been laser scanned) to create digital files that can be used to generate their clones for future scenes that they may be unable or unwilling to perform, or for stunts, such as Schwarzenegger hanging off the back of a truck, that a cast insurer may prohibit them from doing. Stars can also be created de novo, as Sony's digital animators did in the case of Aki Ross in Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. Ross had enough sex appeal to earn a slot on Maxim's 2001 "Hot 100" list (the only nonexistent person to ever appear on that list).

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Hollywood studios, whose main profits derive not from producing unique films, but from creating licensing platforms in the form of franchises, would clearly benefit from owning cyber-stars who never age. These stars could be used over and over again in sequels—including, if necessary, digital modifications that maximized their audience appeal. Their image could also be licensed to game and toy manufacturers without any restrictions. And like actors in the bygone studio system, these cyber-stars would be the studios' indentured chattel, playing whatever roles they were assigned. The advantage of such robotic compliance to a studio was spelled out in Andrew Niccol's 2002 movie Simone, in which a Hollywood producer-director (Al Pacino) explains that stars have become a bottleneck in studio production. "We always had stars, but they used to be our stars," he ruefully complains to his studio boss. "We would tell them what to do, what to wear, who to date." To restore this control, he creates a computer-generated composite of a star who incorporates the best features of Marlene Dietrich, Audrey Hepburn, and Lauren Bacall and programs the digital file, called Simone, to do whatever acting he requires.

Years ago, George Lucas pointed to the theoretical possibility of generating such cyber-stars, saying, "We can make an animal ... and if you do that, you can make a human," but the practical application is still a great challenge. The issue is not just making a digital clone of a human—as, for example Robert Zemeckis did in The Polar Express with state-of-the-art motion-capture of Tom Hanks—but making one that is realistic enough in its movements and expressions to be indistinguishable from a human (a level of realism that both Final Fantasy and The Polar Express failed to achieve). In Simone, the computer-simulation role, which was falsely attributed in the movie's credits to "Simone," was actually played by an uncredited human actress, Rachel Roberts.

I recently discussed this issue with Shuzo Shiota, who heads one of Japan's most innovative digital-animation companies, Polygon Pictures. Even though his company had "digitally reincarnated" a deceased Japanese actor for a video game, he found that the obstacles to creating virtual actors are almost insurmountable. He pointed out that it takes a 90-man team of modelers, renderers, and animators, many of whom are versed in human anatomy, neurology, and kinetics, a day or more to produce just three seconds of highly realistic animation. And even that level of animation can fool an audience for only a limited time—"10 to 15 seconds"—before the illusion is shattered. At present, he explains, "The amount of information that the human expression, skin, and body … require is just too huge for CG animators."

If so, while the idea of computer-generated virtual stars is the dream of many a producer, it may have to wait for a further leap in illusion-making technology.

Edward Jay Epstein is the author of The Big Picture: The New Logic of Money and Power in Hollywood. (To read the first chapter, click here.)

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