Film studios shouldn’t profit off dead stars

Nobody should be allowed to use CGI to resurrect deceased actors onscreen

Production companies need to respect deceased actors.

For someone who died in 1994, legendary British actor Peter Cushing did a remarkable job reprising his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in 2016’s Rogue One. But, of course, it wasn’t really him. 

The visual effects wizards at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), combined with the motion-captured performance of actor Guy Henry, enabled Cushing to be brought back to life onscreen for the Star Wars spinoff film. 

Cushing is not the first actor to be recreated using CGI (computer-generated imagery) and he won’t be the last. In 2013, Audrey Hepburn’s image was used for a chocolate advertisement, which even featured the song “Moon River” from her 1961 film Breakfast at Tiffany’s

In both cases, the use of CGI to make a deceased actor appear onscreen drew its appeal from the viewers’ familiarity and sense of nostalgia for that actor’s work. 

Rogue One relies heavily on Star Wars fans’ nostalgia. In addition to reviving Tarkin, the filmmakers also brought back a digitally de-aged Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. 

Fisher died on December 27, 2016, only 11 days after the release of Rogue One, which made her appearance at the film’s end all the more sentimental. 

As with Cushing, Fisher’s younger face was superimposed over that of another actor in order to appear as she did in the 1977 film. However, the difference between her appearance and that of Cushing is that Fisher consented to the use of her image before she passed away. 

When Fisher died, the new Star Wars trilogy was not yet completed and her character was meant to have a big role in the final installment. Given the precedent set by Rogue One, fans speculated that Disney would use CGI so that Leia could appear in Episode IX

However, J.J. Abrams, the director and co-writer of the upcoming film, stated that “the idea of having a CG character was off the table. We never even wanted to try.” 

Instead, the filmmakers used deleted scenes and previously unseen footage from The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi in order to have the real Carrie return for the finale of the saga.

They have the technology and the facial scans of Fisher from Rogue One, so they could have gone the CGI route if they wanted to, but Abrams’ reluctance raises the question: If it was unthinkable to recreate Fisher with CGI, then why was it alright to do so with Cushing? 

It’s inherently wrong to exploit a deceased actor’s image in a blockbuster film regardless of whether they died today or 20 years ago.

Legally, a studio can only use a late actor’s image in this way if they obtain the consent of their estate. In the case of Cushing, his wife is dead and he has no children, so his estate is handled by his former secretary, Joyce Broughton.

Broughton is not allowed to confess the details of her agreement with Disney, but she says she is pleased with his portrayal in the film.

In addition, John Knoll, the head of ILM, claims they “didn’t do anything Peter Cushing would have objected to.”

While it’s true that the content of Cushing’s so-called performance in Rogue One is inoffensive, it doesn’t matter whether the intentions of the filmmakers and the portrayal itself are respectful.

On principle, it’s unethical to make a deceased person appear to do or say things that they never did. Actors today are leaving provisions in their wills to prevent the profiting off of their image after they’re gone.

Although Knoll claims Cushing wouldn’t have objected to his CGI treatment, the reality is that Cushing likely never foresaw this possibility and couldn’t have objected to it even if he wanted to.

Moreover, a big contribution to ILM’s efforts was Knoll’s discovery of a mold of Cushing’s head that was cast for a 1984 comedy film. The visual effects artists took a scan of this to give them a fully accurate digital model of Cushing’s head.

Cushing consented to have his head molded without realizing years later it would be used for an entirely different purpose. This feels dishonorable on ILM’s part.

It’s simply not fair to recreate an actor’s image, voice, and mannerisms so meticulously in order to thrill rabid fans without knowing the wishes of that dead actor.

Cushing’s representation in Rogue One may have been inoffensive but it sets a bad precedent. Imagine if an actor was brought back not to sell chocolate or to give a glorified cameo, but to titillate viewers—like if they brought back a famous actress to appear in a sex scene.

Like porn or advertising, film is ultimately a business. Production companies need to be respectful and refrain from profiting off the dead.

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