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).

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.)

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Global Marches Demand Action on Climate Change

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Sept. 21 2014 1:15 PM The Slate Doctor Who Podcast: Episode 5  A spoiler-filled discussion of "Time Heist."
  Arts
Television
Sept. 21 2014 9:00 PM Attractive People Being Funny While Doing Amusing and Sometimes Romantic Things Don’t dismiss it. Friends was a truly great show.
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 21 2014 8:00 AM An Astronaut’s Guided Video Tour of Earth
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.