Post-filmic exhumations: the ontology and ethics of ‘reviving the dead’ on film

petercushing

Written by: Alessio Casella

With the development of digital technologies, cinema has honed its own voodoo witchcraft: films have now the power to revive the dead.

Among the familiar faces brought back by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, die-hard fans surely recognised Grand Moff Tarkin, the Commander of the Death Star who first appeared in Star Wars in 1977. What makes the viewers baffled is knowing that Peter Cushing, the British actor who plays Tarkin, died in 1994.

Although Cushing is not the first late actor being revived by the black magic of CGI, his latest filmic appearance is noteworthy because it is the result of state-of-the-art technologies capable of generating almost photorealistic images and seamlessly merging profilmic and digital imagery. This key factor raises two issues, leading us to reflect on digital cinema’s possibilities and responsibilities.

First of all, it reawakens the long-discussed issue of ontology of the image, which in this case falls in a grey area. In Rogue One, Tarkin’s character was recreated using an actor with bodily and facial features similar to Cushing’s, and then layering on him a digitally recreated composition of Tarkin’s 1977 original shots. Therefore, although the character has roots in the real world, his performance was digitally tweaked and artificially animated. If David Rodowick argued that digital media produce tokens of numbers, whereas analog media record traces of event (2007, p. 9), Cushing’s resuscitation represents a meeting point of these two scenarios.

tarkin_uncanny valley

Guy Henry (left) has given his face for Tarkin to be recreated digitally.

Secondly, let’s talk about ethics. In 1951, André Bazin argued that filmed death is an obscenity, as it makes the final moment infinitely reproducible (2003, p. 30). When discussing digital film, the taboo seems not as much an ever-repeated death, but rather an artificially-prolonged life. Sure, we may call this process resuscitation, however it looks more like digital exhumation, or filmic taxidermy. Digital-Tarkin’s performance is nothing more than a robot’s dance. What we are witnessing is the simulacrum of a long-dead actor, a “synthespian” (Rodowick, 2007, p. 6) made to act alongside living people.

tarkin-uncannyvalley

A comparison between 1977 Tarkin and his CGI recreation. Impressive developments in digital imagery have led modern CGI-created characters on the brink of ‘escaping’ the uncanny valley (Mori, 2012).

References

Bazin, A. (2003). Death Every Afternoon. In: Margulies, I. (ed.) Rites of realism: essays on corporeal cinema. Durham: Duke University Press, 27-31.

Itzkoff, D. (2016). How ‘Rogue One’ Brought Back Familiar Faces. The New York Times, 27 December. Available from https://www.nytimes.com/2016/12/27/movies/how-rogue-one-brought-back-grand-moff-tarkin.html [Accessed 10 February 2017].

Mori, M. (2012). The Uncanny Valley. IEEE Robotics & Automation Magazine, 19 (2), 98-100. Available from http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/stamp/stamp.jsp?tp=&arnumber=6213238 [Accessed 23 March 2017].

Patterson, J. (2015). CGI Friday: a brief history of computer-generated actors. The Guardian, 27 March. Available from https://www.theguardian.com/film/2015/mar/27/paul-walker-furious-seven-brief-history-of-computer-generated-actors [Accessed 10 February 2017].

Rodowick, D.N. (2007). The virtual life of film. London: Harvard University Press.

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