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In The Future Movie Stars May Be Performing Even After They're Dead

Mar 5, 2018

Technology is threatening a lot of jobs — travel agents, truck drivers, factory workers. But here's one you might not expect: actors.

Technology in the entertainment business is on course to create digital actors who compete with live ones.

The Acadamy Award-winning Blade Runner 2049 gives us a glimpse of this future. There's a scene in the sci-fi film that's a miracle of modern technology. Harrison Ford plays a character named Deckard, who, like the actor, has aged normally since 1982's original Blade Runner.

Deckard reunites with a character named Rachael. In the earlier film, she was played by Sean Young, who's now 58. But with a little help from special effects she hadn't aged a bit.

The technicians scanned Young's head and skull. Then they used footage of the actress from the older film to build a younger face around her scanned skull. They rearranged audio from her old performances and voila — Rachael looks 35 years younger.

Michael Fink, a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California, says he was blown away by the transformation.

Fink, who has had a long career doing special effects, says the film is a part of a progression that began decades ago to replace real actors with digital ones. It really started with extras, he says. He has shot a lot of big crowd scenes, such as one in the 1996 film Mars Attacks. There's a scene in the desert when the Martians land.

"We went way out in the desert in Arizona," Fink says. "We had 700 people out there and we had to house them and feed them."

Fast-forward 10 years to Superman Returns and another crowd scene. Superman has to land a plane in a packed baseball stadium.

"We had 200 extras, which was what we needed," Fink says. "But there's 50,000 people in a baseball stadium — everybody else was digital."

This advance in technology is saving filmmakers money but it hasn't been good for extras, who make hundreds of dollars a day.

"Extras are losing work," Fink says. And technology is marching on. Filmmakers are getting closer to being able to create full performances of actors who are no longer alive.

In 2016, Peter Cushing returned as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. He'd been dead over 20 years. Before this technology, a younger actor might have been cast in the role.

And it's not just movies. The music world was stunned in 2012 when a hologram of a Tupac Shakur performed live at Coachella.

Digital Domain, the firm that created that hologram, was also responsible for the special effects behind films including Beauty and the Beast, X-Men and Maleficent.

Darren Hendler, digital effects supervisor for the company, says that some big-name actors are preparing for a day when their life as performers will continue after their death. Hendler says some performers spend millions digitally preserving themselves in the company's archive.

"We have a digital archive menu," he says. "You can archive how your face works and every single expression you make, full body scans. You can archive your voice and the way your voice sounds. You can archive different wardrobes and scans of wardrobes that you may wear."

Hendler will not say which famous actors have done this. But imagine a future where a young actress must compete against a digital Meryl Streep. Or the late James Gandolfini is able to keep playing Tony Soprano forever.

Hendler and other experts say we are a long way from being able to get a great performance from a dead actor. Yet USC's Fink says the trajectory of the technology is clear. But do audiences really want to watch dead actors?

"Eventually all of us wind up six feet under and that's OK," Fink says. "Let the new actors be seen. Don't hang on to something that is really never gonna be the person that we grew to love anyway."

But Hollywood is the land of illusion. Actors have long tried to keep themselves looking younger, so why not take it to the next level — eternal endless youth?

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In this week's All Tech Considered, do an Oscar-winning film's special effects portend fewer acting jobs in the future?

(SOUNDBITE OF ULRICH SCHNAUSS' "NOTHING HAPPENS IN JUNE")

KELLY: Our series Is My Job Safe looks at how automation and artificial intelligence are changing the nature of our work. Today, technology in "Blade Runner 2049" offers a glimpse of a future where digital actors compete with living ones. Here's NPR's Laura Sydell.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: There's a scene in the new "Blade Runner" that is a miracle of modern technology. Harrison Ford plays a character named Deckard who, like Harrison Ford, has aged normally since the 1982 version of the film. Deckard reunites with Rachael from the old "Blade Runner." She was played by Sean Young, who's now 58. With a little help from special effects, she hasn't aged a bit.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLADE RUNNER 2049")

SEAN YOUNG: (As Rachael) Did you miss me?

SYDELL: The technicians scanned Sean Young's head and skull. Then they used footage of the actress from the older film to hand-build a younger face around the scanned skull. They rearranged audio from the old performances and Rachael looks 35 years younger.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BLADE RUNNER 2049")

YOUNG: (As Rachael) Don't you love me?

MICHAEL FINK: I was blown away by the way she looked and performed - her skin, her makeup, her hair.

SYDELL: Michael Fink is a professor in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. He's had a long career doing special effects. He says "Blade Runner" is part of a progression that began decades ago to replace real actors with digital ones. Let's start with extras.

(SOUNDBITE OF LASER FIRING)

SYDELL: Fink has shot a lot of big crowd scenes. He worked on the 1996 film "Mars Attacks!" There's a scene in the desert when the Martians land.

FINK: We went way out in the desert in Arizona. And we had 700 people out there. And we had to house them and feed them.

SYDELL: Fast-forward 10 years to "Superman Returns" and another crowd scene. Superman has to land a plane in a packed baseball stadium.

(SOUNDBITE OF CRACK, CHEERING)

FINK: We had 200 extras, which was what we needed. But there's 50,000 people in a baseball stadium. Everybody else was digital.

SYDELL: This advance in technology hasn't been good for extras, who can make hundreds of dollars a day.

FINK: Extras are losing work.

SYDELL: And we are getting closer to being able to create full performances of actors who are no longer alive. That means young actors may be competing with dead ones. In 2016, in "Rogue One: A Star Wars Story," Peter Cushing returned in his role as Grand Moff Tarkin.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY")

PETER CUSHING: (As Grand Moff Tarkin) When has become now, Director Krennic. The emperor will tolerate no further delay.

SYDELL: That's Cushing speaking over 20 years after his death. Before this technology, a younger actor might have been cast in the role. And it's not just movies. The music world was stunned in 2012 when a hologram of Tupac Shakur performed live at Coachella.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TUPAC SHAKUR: (Singing) Want to ride or die? La la-da-la la la la la (ph).

SYDELL: The firm that created that hologram is Digital Domain. It's also done the special effects behind films such as "Beauty And The Beast," "X-Men" and "Maleficent." Darren Hendler, digital effects supervisor there, says that some big-name actors are preparing for a day when their life as performers will continue after their death. Hendler says the company has a digital archive. Some performers spend millions archiving themselves.

DARREN HENDLER: We have, like, a digital archive menu. You can archive how your face works and every single expression you make, full body scans. You can archive your voice and the way your voice sounds. You can archive different wardrobes and scans of wardrobes that you may wear.

SYDELL: Hendler will not say which famous actors have done this, but imagine a future where a young actress must compete against a digital Meryl Streep or the late James Gandolfini is able to keep playing Tony Soprano. The good news for young actors is that Hendler and other experts say we are a long way from being able to get a great performance from a dead actor. USC's Fink says technology will march on. The question is, do audiences really want to watch dead actors?

FINK: Eventually all of us wind up six feet under, and that's OK. Let the new actors be seen. Don't hang on to something that is really never going to be the person that we grew to love anyway.

SYDELL: But Hollywood is the land of illusion. Actors have long tried to keep themselves looking younger, so why not take it all the way - eternal, endless youth. Laura Sydell, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NECRO SONG, "THE DISPENSATION OF LIFE AND DEATH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.