Paul Walker's performance in Furious 7—the seventh instalment of the brawn-and-pistons franchise Fast & Furious—is a convincing example of cinematic resuscitation. Since Walker died in a car crash in 2013 with only some of his scenes in the can, the guy we see gallivanting on screen for a good deal of the movie is a concoction of body doubles (including Walker's two brothers) and CGI, courtesy of Peter Jackson's visual effects company Weta Digital.
Technology has been used to snatch celebrities back from the afterlife for quite a while, sometimes for promotional ends, but also in order to finish up earlier movies whose main stars have died during production—the archetype being The Crow's Brandon Lee. Lee was accidentally killed on set in 1993, and was replaced for the final scenes by another actor onto whom a digital reconstruction of Lee's face was grafted.
But what so far has been a last resort could one day become routine. According to special effects experts, actors are starting to stockpile digital 3D replicas of themselves in order to keep appearing in movies after death.
Mike McGee, cofounder of special effects studio Framestore—which produced the visuals for Alfonso Cuarón's Gravity, and recently used CGI to have Audrey Hepburn star in a chocolate commercial—explained that selling posthumous image rights is a good way to keep raking in money for your heirs decades after your demise.
"An actor that is alive today can use a scanner to get a digital 3D model of their appearance, and then sell a studio the right to use their image for, say, five movies after their death," he told me when we met at Framestore's studios in central London. "Actors who are very young and think they're going to have a successful career can start scanning their bodies periodically, so they can act in different age ranges, either when they are alive or dead."
As farfetched as it sounds, Hollywood could slowly be marching toward a post-biological era. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, visual effect supervisor Scott Squires said that some studios were keeping scans of their actors "as an archival thing."
Late actor Robin Williams took measures to bar anyone from using his image in publicity for 25 years after his death last year (although it is unknown whether he was ever scanned.)
Framestore's studio in Los Angeles, equipped with a state-of-the-art 3D scanning rig, used to scan actors mainly for production companies in need of digital body doubles for dangerous stunts; but now, according to McGee, actors are coming to be scanned to have a copy for themselves. The final 250MB digital file comfortably fits on a USB stick.
A digital scan of a model. Video: Framestore
Perhaps the eeriest thing about this is how it conjures up the idea of a future movie industry eternally dwelled by the same, Dorian Grey-esque stars, with dead old glories crowding new actors out of business. But McGee thinks that won't be the case—yet.
"Having a 3D model performing just by means of animation is technically difficult, and time-consuming," he explained. "To use some dead star's scan in a movie, you'll still have to animate the 3D model with a motion-capture performance from a live actor. You would probably cast some sort of impersonator able to play the role the way the dead actor would have played it."
"While killing is very simple, kissing is very hard."
Still, it's easy to predict how digital models could damage performers. "What I can see is that you could absolutely slim down the cast, in the same way they do in radio with just a handful of good voice impersonators playing many roles," McGee said. "However, it could be difficult to do it effectively in scenes with many people interacting, like for instance in an argument among more than two people."
Granted, the change is not coming just yet. 3D models are impressive, but they're still expensive (not so much the scan itself but the animation thereafter), and there are still some things that don't look quite right. When it comes to conveying emotions, 3D-scanned actors are not as subtle (or credible) as their meatbag counterparts; and while they can be easily beheaded, maimed and blood-smeared, having them perform actions as simple as kissing or having sex in a realistic way is a daunting task. "Rendering skin on skin contact is a nightmare," McGee said. "While killing is very simple, kissing is very hard."
What we can expect in the near future is that scans could be used to save (live) actors' time. 3D expert Anthony Bloor, from VFX company MPC, sees them as a way to overcome schedule overlapping. "What would happen first is that an actor could be able to do two films in the same period. He may have to shoot only the close-ups, and a digital model will act in the rest of the movie," he told me.
But rather than technical limitations, the future of superstardom might be saved by the fact that 3D models don't make for good tabloid fodder. "I think we'll keep having new actors because a large part of the movie industry is built on gossip about actors and celebrities," McGee said. "And they'll always need people to feed the gossip machine."
Goodbye, Meatbags is a series on Motherboard about the waning relevance of the human physical form. Follow along here.