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The Ethics of “Rogue One’s” Digital Resurrections

By Jason Cueto

The Force is still strong as Disney and Lucasfilm’s first entry to the Star Wars anthology series, “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” met critical and commercial success for the franchise yet again. While the film did not break any records for character development or plot, “Rogue One” was lauded for its technical prowess, capturing the authenticity of the 1977 “Star Wars” film. Yet one of these elements has brought divided attention: digital actors. “Rogue One” has mainly been criticized for its over-abundance of fan service, particularly the reprisal of Admiral Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia, resurrected through Computer Generated Imagery (CGI).

This effort in visual effects (VFX) is certainly not the first of its kind. Modern blockbusters implement CGI stunt doubles in widely shot, complicated action sequences, but in films like “Tron: Legacy” and Marvel’s recent outings, VFX artists succeeded in reverse-aging older actors for intimate scenes of dialogue and character interaction. If tragedy strikes, films like “Furious 7” resort to using a body double to fully replicate a deceased actor to avoid production issues. The presence of digital Tarkin and Leai, meant to closely tie “Rogue One” with “A New Hope,” has caused a stir with audiences and critics because, like previous films’ attempts, the artificiality is still noticeable, crossing into the recurring Uncanny Valley effect. This term is coined in the 70s by Japanese roboticist, Masashiro Moti who described the phenomenon where humans can accept robots that look humanoid to a certain degree, but if they are too believable it becomes unsettling. In today’s standards, CGI bears hyper-realistic resemblance, evoking discomfort and unease, especially when we know that those actors have aged or passed away.

Visual effects have come a long way and certain big-budget and even independent films (Oscar-Winner “Ex Machina”) demonstrate the power of special effects in cinema. CGI remains an important tool to create complex, yet believable characters on-screen. Although the “Star Wars” prequels are criticized for abusing that tool, alien creatures and characters like the lambasted Jar Jar Binks can be identified as CGI creations because they hold designs that wouldn’t be executed through practical effects. And to a lesser extent, Robert Zemeckis’ “Forrest Gump” utilized trick photography with archival footage of historical figures and Tom Hank’s performance in the scenes filmed, but the final visuals gave a sense of authenticity and social context essential to the story. When it comes to artificially-created humans, VFX do not always meet the same results.

Now, I was astonished at the care and detail the VFX team at Industrial Light and Magic paid to recreate these characters. The filmmakers hired actors, Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila, to portray Tarkin and Leia respectively and the artists at ILM carefully rendered the models through repeated viewings of scenes from “Star Wars” (1977), and superimposed the characters onto the actors’ performances. However, incredible achievements in digital likeness cannot maintain the audience’s suspension of disbelief and it poses questions of casting ethics in today’s film industry.

At first I was amazed how seamlessly CGI Tarkin resembled that late 70s-era Peter Cushing. As the film progressed and more screen-time was given to this CGI character, it not only overshadowed the presence of its other marketable antagonists, but also diminished the illusion, reaching the Uncanny Valley effect. And Leia’s appearance is even worse, not just because of the tonal disruption of the film’s spectacular, yet grim climax, but the recreation of a youthful Carrie Fisher (with less detail than an older Grand Moff Tarkin) resembled a glittery wax statue. As a result, the uncanniness is highly apparent.

As an enthusiast of ILM’s work, I am not questioning the VFX artists’ dedication; I question the decision made to do so. While the film had live actors identical to their iconic counterparts (Genevieve O’Reilly replacing Caroline Blakiston as Rebel Alliance leader, Mon Mothma) without digital manipulation, why couldn’t this decision be made for Tarkin and Leia? These characters from the Original Trilogy remain ingrained in popular culture and George Lucas’ universe has expanded so much that it shouldn’t require digital lookalikes to refresh the audience’s memory of these characters.

While Tarkin-actor, Guy Henry initially expressed concern on set, according to The Business Insider, what about the families of the depicted actors? Lucasfilm and ILM did acquire permission from Peter Cushing’s family estate and even Carrie Fisher herself, but it undermines the legacy that these actors left to their families in their passing. And worse, it puts the families who hold the personal and moral rights in a position to decide if the actor’s death should be preserved without insensitive likeness. As a highly successful media conglomerate, Disney must compensate them if permission for likeness is required to avoid legal conflicts with actors’ families. Lastly, it does disservice for the current actors hired to portray them who find themselves replaced by the artificial presence of the original actor.

Resurrecting actors is essential to avoid majors production costs and changes, but “Rogue One’s” Frankenstein experiment pushes the line in preserving the legacy of long-deceased actors. Disney and Lucasfilm invested time and money on the “Star Wars” franchise to ensure high success, especially by hiring dedicated actors who bear good resemblance to pre-existing characters and they should trust the actors and their performances.

Despite the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher, “Episode Eight,” now in post-production, already has Fisher’s key scenes filmed and Disney will have to decide if they want to negotiate permission for her likeness or leave Fisher’s name and legacy in peace for “Episode Nine.” It is uncertain if this trend in visual effects work will continue, but the filmmakers and the studios supporting them creatively will undoubtedly maintain the authentic, crowd-pleasing spectacle for the next “Star Wars” chapter even if it means relying on highly talented actors to fill the shoes of its fallen stars.