The end of the actor: In the future, every movie will be an animated movie

We first encountered them in commercials. Dead actors who return briefly to promote a product. Coca-Cola was probably the first to go big with it in the early 1990s. Trumpeter Louis Armstrong plays a tune with Elton John behind the piano in a classy retro nightclub and film noir actors James Cagney and Humphrey Bogart are among the visitors. Relive the thirties. The Diet Coke fizzes over the ice cubes. That was another dry spell.

The techniques from that commercial have since improved enormously. Hollywood is now fond of a digital resurrection or rejuvenation cure. Samuel L. Jackson in various Marvel movies, Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator GenisysOrlando Bloom as the young Legolas in The HobbitRobert DeNiro into The Irishman, the list of digital facelifts continues to grow. In the last Avatar movie The Way of Water Sigourney Weaver, now 73, ‘plays’ a 14-year-old girl. In the trailer for the fifth Indiana Jones film, which is due to premiere this summer, actor Harrison Ford suddenly looks like he did in his heyday. And the just launched trailer for it Beau is Afraidthe new movie from Ari Aster (Midsommar) suggests that protagonist Joaquin Phoenix has also undergone a digital rejuvenation cure in this four-hour surreal nightmare. It looks uncanny out, because the boy in the film resembles Phoenix now as much as two drops of water, as well as completely unlike the former child actor’s actual childhood photos.

Sex with seahorses

With so many big names taking the digital leap, 2023 could very well be the year of the digital actor’s breakthrough. With the right technological tools, you can raise any actor from the dead. And by the way, they don’t even have to be dead for them to be pretty much anything and do whatever you want: run, fly, swim underwater, have sex with seahorses, old and young. Nowadays, almost all films are made, embellished and manipulated on the computer to a greater or lesser extent. Seen in this way, every film in the future will be an animated film. With the necessary ethical questions that come with it.

Joaquin Phoenix as a digitized movie star in ‘Beau is Afraid’
Digital forever young? Harrison Ford in the new India Jones movie
Joaquin Phoenix as a digitized movie star in ‘Beau is Afraid’ and Harrison Ford suddenly looks like it did in its heyday in the new India Jones film.

The front line is formed by the next step: deepfakes. The original deepfakes paste someone’s face over someone else’s like a digital mask. They broke through into the mainstream from an obscure corner of the internet, where they were mainly used for satire, disinformation and (revenge) porn. The popular YouTube deepfake channel Ctrl Shift Face was one of the pioneers: actor Bill Hader who slowly turns into Tom Cruise, Jim Carrey who plays Jack Nicholson in The ShiningTrump and Biden in a rap battle, Putin as a character in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious bastards.

Last fall, Bruce Willis was probably the first actor to sell the rights for his deepfake alter ego to the tech company Deepcake dedicated to creating celebrity digital twins. Willis, who had to stop acting early due to aphasia, can collect royalties from films in which he – yes, what exactly? – can be seen, but does not play itself? Willis’ first deepfake appearance was in a Russian TV commercial. For this, his face was mounted on another body. In an accompanying promo video, he called it “a journey back in time.”

Scanning actress

That reminded me of an interview I once had with Israeli filmmaker Ari Folman about his visionary film The Congress. In it, actress Robin Wright plays an actress named Robin Wright. She lets in The Congress digitally scanned under pressure from a Hollywood producer (type Harvey Weinstein), so that he can have her at his disposal anytime, anywhere.

There is a catch: she is not allowed to work anywhere else. As an actress she is now without rights, only her avatar will continue to exist. It is her last chance, warns the producer: she is not getting any younger. And neither does the film industry, he adds ominously: that whole studio system that feeds and cherishes its stars, but also covers up their scandals and cleans up their mess, is doomed.

Is it fair for young talent to give old stars eternal life?

Folman said he came up with the idea for that scene after he made his first film, the animated documentary Waltz with Bashir was at the Cannes Film Festival and was pointed out by his producer to an older actress: “She was an American acting goddess from the seventies – no, I won’t say who – and no one recognized her, she was also unrecognizable, all old and on.” The image did not leave him: “Especially because it started to mix in my head with images from her most famous films. Then I realized that she would forever have to live with the image of her younger self. So do we.”

The Congress is loosely based on the book by science fiction writer Stanlislaw Lem, The Futurology Congress from 1971 and contains both live action and animated scenes. When Wright finally agrees to have it reproduced digitally, we flashforward in the second part to the futuristic cartoon world of a totalitarian entertainment state. There the scene is repeated between her virtual self and someone who may also be a digitally immortalized variant of the producer. He prepares her for the next step where he can sell her as a “chemical formula” so that her fans can sprinkle her on their faces like icing sugar. creme brulee can sprinkle.

This obsession with youth and beauty on the one hand, and the total want to own stars and idols, is so characteristic of Hollywood that all those deepfakes and other digital technologies almost seem like the end goal of the media industry. Making similar digital doubles is as popular as it is controversial: they contribute to fake news, reputational damage and identity theft. And worse. Audiovisual material often plays an important role in criminal proceedings, so its ease of manipulation poses a serious threat to the rule of law. In the current war between Russia and Ukraine, digital disinformation campaigns are an important part of wartime propaganda. Putin declaring peace. Zelensky telling his men to surrender. For now it all looks rather wooden, but one misunderstanding is enough.

These are issues that are still too little addressed in the film industry. The warning given in Folmans The Congress sit is not heard. Deepcake promotes itself by pointing out the convenience of deepfakes: no more difficult actors on the set. But is it fair to new talent to always recycle the stars of yesteryear and their eternal youth?

As long as the movie industry thrives on the creditworthiness of stars (no funding for your new masterpiece without a famous name), it seems advantageous if star actors get eternal life. It is safer to invest in a familiar face. And then it is also cheaper to use digital images of famous actors.

The digital actor is therefore indispensable. He is an extension of the voice actor, the CGI actor who uses sensors on his face and body to demonstrate his skills in front of a green screen and is replaced by an animated avatar in the computer. Perhaps this will eventually lead to a new type of actor. After all, the creative possibilities are also immense.

It will change our ideas about physicality forever, as is already happening in some VR experiences. Currently, the best acting is an art and skill where things like voice and emotion come from the whole body. It will be a while before the digital doctors Frankenstein can also put that all together. Until then, those rejuvenation cures are a stunt and the digital actor a visual effect.

Plus, there always comes a tipping point where the audience collectively decides that even a young Harrison Ford is corny. Unlike Robin Wright in The Congress for whose appearance time simply stands still, there is a chance that the new Indiana Jones fans will also see him as an old man in TV series 1923 have seen.

Then you better make sure that enough new stars have been born in the meantime.

Leave a Comment