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CGI acting isn’t acting

| Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Famous for his roles in “East of Eden” and “Rebel Without a Cause,” James Dean is one of the most celebrated actors of all time. His illustrious career, however, was cut short when he was killed in a car accident in 1955 at the age of 24. It was a tragic loss for his family, for old Hollywood and an America that had already fallen in love with Dean and his films.

Kerry Schneeman | The Observer

But, one way or another, it seems we’ll be getting another James Dean movie. Directed by Anton Ernst and Tati Golykh, “Finding Jack” is a Vietnam War-film focusing on the thousands of military dogs abandoned in Indochina following the war. “We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan,” Ernst said, “which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.” After obtaining approval from the deceased’s family, Dean will be brought back to life by MOI Worldwide, a South African VFX company, using a combination of CGI, archival footage and a voice actor. It’s sure to be a triumph of modern technology that will introduce younger audiences to one of the greatest actors of all time. 

And that’s a shame. 

For one thing, the role of Rogan will not be James Dean. The directors and producers can say it is, they can credit him in the cast list — but Dean has been dead for 64 years. He, unfortunately, cannot act anymore. I would love to see him in a role like his in “Giant,” or playing a character as seminal as Cal Trask again, but I can’t. None of us can. Claiming that we’ll be able to is a disservice to audiences. Claiming that no one else could play the Rogan character is an insult to the thousands of capable working actors totally deserving of and surely qualified for the role. 

It should also be noted that the technology simply is not ready to feature so prominently in a film. Despite the production team’s confidence, other recent “live action CGI” has completely failed at producing convincing characters on screen. The tech was most famously used in 2016’s “Rogue One: a Star Wars Story,” to return the characters of Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin to the franchise. Peter Cushing, who played Tarkin in the original 1977 “Star Wars,” had died in 1994. To recreate his likeness, Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) placed actor Guy Henry “in a transparent mask with small holes all over it on his face. … A person from ILM would then put the motion-capture dots over the marks on his face. Then right before a scene was about to start a head cam would be placed on him, which would capture every facial movement Henry made.” 

Though Henry certainly gave a convincing performance, and ILM went to great efforts to produce a realistic Tarkin, there is something undeniably off about the final product. Tarkin’s eyes seem hollow, dead and unhuman-like. CGI may be advancing quickly, but I doubt that two years is nearly enough time to remedy this defect. It will be painfully obvious that we’re not watching James Dean, but a poor CGI imitation of him. 

Most importantly, however, using Dean’s image in “Finding Jack” makes a complete mockery of his career, his legacy and the art of acting in general. Actor Chris Evans, best known for playing Captain America and for being Captain America in real life, was just as dismayed as myself about the casting. “I’m sure he’d [Dean] be thrilled,” he tweeted. “This is awful. Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso. Or write a couple new John Lennon tunes. The complete lack of understanding here is shameful.” 

Evans is right — it is absolutely shameful. If a computer were to take Lennon recordings, and move words around here and there, invent a new melody that samples his more famous tunes — I doubt anyone would accept it as a new John Lennon song. In fact, I bet it would be viewed as a perversion, a complete lack of understanding for the craft of songwriting and the work Lennon put in to create his music. Likewise, acting can’t, and shouldn’t, be done with a computer. Dean’s performances were so much more than just his being on screen. They’re his inflection, his posture, his eyes, the thousands of seemingly insignificant choices that went into every character and every line of dialogue. To slap a CGI mask on someone and say it’s a new Dean performance diminishes his incredible talent; it says acting can be nothing more than a person’s poorly-rendered face. 

If “Finding Jack” succeeds at the box office, it seems like the trend is going to continue. Recently, marketing agency CMG Worldwide and content creation studio Observe Media announced plans to merge into “Worldwide XR,” a new CGI effects company with the imaging rights to over 1,700 celebrities. CMG’s CEO, Mark Roesler, stated that “This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us.” The company hopes that the technology will be used to bring other famous actors back to the movies, including Christopher Reeve, Ingrid Bergman and Jack Lemmon. 

Unfortunate as it is, Dean and all these celebrities died a long time ago. Their contributions to the film industry are set. Resurrecting them would mean taking a role away from one of the many new actors who deserve to have their stars made. It would mean taking the very serious art of acting and turning it into nothing more than a computer program. 

Roesler also stated that “Our job is to keep the memories of some of these icons alive and that’s what we’re trying to do.” But Dean and his roles remain as iconic as they were 60 years ago. His memory is already alive and well. He’s already a legend — and he doesn’t need special effects to stay one.

Patrick McKelvey splits his time between being a college senior and pretending to be a screenwriter. He majors in American studies and classics, and he will be working in market research in New York after graduating. If you can’t find him at the movies, he can be reached for comment at [email protected] or @PatKelves17 on Twitter. 

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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