Peter Cushing, Rogue One and CGI of dead actors

Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin in 1977's 'Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope'
Peter Cushing as Moff Tarkin in 1977’s ‘Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope’

An actor’s career never really ends. Even after he’s dead.

The debate over the use of deceased performers through computer effects has resurfaced in the wake of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The standalone prequel, set just before the events in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, includes the use of a CGI Peter Cushing.

The legendary British actor appeared in the original 1977 Star Wars film as Moff Tarkin, commander of the Death Star. That character also appears in several scenes of Rogue One.

Cushing, however, died in 1994 at the age of 81.

The award-winning actor was “resurrected” thanks to the magic of computers. His digitally created visage was placed on actor Guy Henry. At moments the effect is impressively life-like. In others, it’s downright creepy.

Effective or not, the issue that has most people talking isn’t whether or not it’s a good use of computer animation. Many are asking the question: Should Disney and Lucasfilm have done it?

Wayne Pygram played a younger version of Moff Tarkin in a brief scene at the end of 'Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith'
Wayne Pygram played a younger version of Moff Tarkin in a brief scene at the end of ‘Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith’

The character of Tarkin is seen briefly at the end of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. However, in that case it was actor Wayne Pygram (Farscape) made to look like a slightly younger Cushing. George Lucas reportedly toyed with the idea of trying to ‘create’ Tarkin using computers and footage from the original Star Wars, but this was ultimately abandoned.

The debate of raising dead actors from the grave in movies, commercials and TV shows has been going on for decades. Steve Martin acted opposite many famed – and dead – silver screen icons such as Humphrey Bogart and Joan Crawford in the 1982 comedy Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid. Both actors had died years earlier, and the film used footage from their movies to essentially create new performances. More than a decade later digital technology would drastically change the way dead performers could be used in new works.

The 1994 blockbuster Forest Gump used digital wizardry to insert Tom Hanks into historic events, and interact with real people who were no longer alive, including Presidents John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson, as well as John Lennon. In 1997, Dirt Devil obtained the rights to use Fred Astaire in commercials, and soon after the toe-tapping vaudevillian was doing twirls and dancing on the ceiling with vacuum cleaners. Those ads were soon followed by John Wayne pitching Coors beer and Bogart and James Cagney helping to sell Diet Coke.

Fred Astaire in 1997 Dirt Devil commercial
Fred Astaire in 1997 Dirt Devil commercial

In 2006, Marlon Brando was “resurrected” to once again play Jor El in Superman Returns. In 2009 Direct TV got slammed for using Chris Farley in an ad. Critics called it a shameless use of the late comedian’s image to sell products. However, family and friends, including David Spade, gave the company their blessing and saw it as a way to remind people about Farley and his talents.

At the time the issue sparked debate, like Cushing in Rogue One is doing now, but the trend never stopped. Marilyn Monroe was recently featured in a Snickers commercial. Technology has even been used to help actors who died unexpectedly to finish their work, as in The Sopranos, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Paul Walker in Furious 7. And despite the criticisms found online about Cushing and Rogue One, as a whole we as a society have clearly been okay with dead artists continuing to be used to create “new” works after their passing.

The Beatles released two songs in the mid-1990s featuring new recordings of them singing with the long-dead Lennon, using an incomplete recording of him from the late 1970s. Or when Natalie Cole did a duet with her dad. Or how about that Tupac “hologram” people went nuts over a few years ago.

John Wayne opposite R. Lee Ermey in a Coors commercial
John Wayne opposite R. Lee Ermey in a Coors commercial

Many singers have had hit records released after they died, including Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury. In many cases they were unfinished, previously unreleased tunes. Who says those musicians wanted people to hear them? The same has happened with authors who have passed. Tom Clancy, Michael Crichton, J.R.R. Tolkien and David Foster Wallace are among several writers who had unfinished works completed by others before they were posthumously published. All of this is done to the benefit of the artists’ family or estate, as well as perhaps the publishers and record labels. But those finished works, while sold as the creation of the dead artists, are only versions of their efforts. Who can know how they may have changed the stories, or if they even wanted them read at all.

Peter Cushing
Peter Cushing

Granted, Rogue One clearly takes this practice to a new level. Cushing died long ago, and while the estate granted Disney the right to use his image in the film (for a handsome fee, I’m sure), the actor doesn’t really get a vote. The deceased performer’s image is then used in several scenes. In fact, he’s a key character in the film. This clearly changes things when it comes to dead actors, computer effects, and how a performer’s likeness can be used (and perhaps exploited) for commercial gain. This is essentially creating wholly new work featuring the image of a person who has shed their mortal coil. And at the end of the day, it’s not that person doing the acting, but some other person behind a computer generated mask.

Like most things, audiences will decide where we go from here. I think the use of Cushing is a rare case, and I don’t see there being any kind of demand for a new John Wayne western featuring a CGI Duke, or a sequel to It’s a Wonderful Life with a computer generated Jimmy Stewart. As noted, it’s a gimmick perhaps used sparingly. But at the end of the the day, it’s not really the actor, it’s just an animated ghost. There are plenty of living actors and actresses around to breathe life into fictional people, I don’t think we need to worry much about digital zombies taking over the big screen.

And while I was originally put off by the idea of Monroe selling candy or Wayne selling beer, I think there’s another perspective to keep in mind. In some cases it’s that actor or actress’ estate that benefits. I would think that, if perhaps my great, great grandkids could go to college based off the use of my image in a movie or commercial, I’d be okay with that.

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