Will Marilyn do porno yet?

Martin considers Beowulf, the computer-generated actor, and old movie stars consequently doing unthinkable things...

This never happened....

The release this week of Beowulf marks an escalation of the encroachment of CGI techniques into ‘conventional’ film-making, where actors’ voice-roles are married to synthespians – computer-generated versions of the actors in question. The movements of these hybrid ‘virtual’ actors on screen are based either on direct motion-capture of the actors themselves or on reference material such as ‘walking’ and ‘emoting’ algorithms, captured and input into a stock library for that performer.

The ability of computers to simulate voices is currently far behind their capacity to create photorealistic 3D renditions of particular people, but once that’s nailed, a great deal of the essence of a movie star may become saveable on hard disk.

This is a long way off, I’m sure – there are random elements about human beings that are currently impossible either to categorise or capture; the aspect of skin under different physical circumstances and lighting conditions may not be solved by glib new rendering tricks such as subsurface scattering, luminosity or radiosity, but by an understanding of what the virtual actor had for their virtual breakfast.

We are highly complex creatures branching our way through a variety of changing conditions, and the ability to calculate meaningful random factors into the appearance, voice and movements of ‘hybrid’ actors requires not mere computing power, but rather a deeper knowledge of human nature and the physical and esoteric sphere in which it operates.

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This is all to come, perhaps. In the meantime, the randomness can be simulated, filed, and painted on, and if the hybrid has no volition, it can at least replay the idiosyncrasies that betray life, turning a real-life actor into a non-existent entity as effectively as a cancelled SAG card.

In the late 1990s there was considerable debate as to whether synthespians might one day replace actors. The culture at that time was still reeling from the advent of photorealistic special effects kick-started by Jurassic Park, and all things seemed possible. It was with similar premature enthusiasm that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells summoned up science-fiction wonders inspired by steam-power and the commercialisation of electricity, but the visions that they had were to be realised with very different technologies and at a far further time in the future than they had wished for and hoped; they were to see the process evolve, but not conclude.

Likewise ‘true’ synthespians have been revealed as a lodestar that is perhaps not for our age, and audiences are growing immured to the standard catalogue of tricks that hide the shortfall between the rendered and the real, such as rain, clipped hairstyles, grungy cinematography and ‘overly studied’ imperfections.

But the truth is that if we are prepared to run synthespians ‘on rails’ as it were, under current technology, Beowulf may be heralding the advent of the virtual film star. Never late. Never ageing. Never complaining about the flavour of nachos in the glass bowls in their trailer. And the actors attached to their synthetic likenesses will, for the first time, be literally able to phone in a performance, since all their mannerisms, gait, expressive physiognomy etc will already be captured and on record as a resource for the effects-houses.

Beowulf director Robert Zemeckis remains in the vanguard of effects-driven movie-making, and much of his output has featured proof-of-concept wizardry that was too impractical to inspire imitators; the much-publicised Beowulf synthespians fall into that category – it’s still considerably cheaper to hire Angelina Jolie than to commit the renderfarms at ILM for the months necessary to paint her digital-double onto film-frames for a leading role.

But synthespians have endless potential to at least appear to answer the what-ifs of movie history. Elvis, for instance, was said to be very interested in playing the part of Joe Buck in John Schlesinger’s Midnight Cowboy; in the end, Angelina Jolie’s dad Jon Voigt got the role, after The Colonel decided that Cowboy’s gay blow-job scene didn’t fit the Presley mystique and – damn his usurious soul – put The King in the utterly dismissible spaghetti western Charro instead.

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What if we could change that? What if we could rescue the great man from the turgid cinematic dross that the finger-licking fool restricted him to for twenty years?

I have mentioned at Den Of Geek before that despite being a huge fan of Blade Runner, I am not a fan of Harrison Ford, and would love to have seen Dustin Hoffman actually play the part of Deckard that he was attached to for six months before contractual obligations pushed him away from the laggard production in 1980. So how about it, ILM?

Part of the late 90s synthespian buzz concerned a possible new film featuring CGI versions of Humphrey Bogart and Marilyn Monroe; this was utter speculation based on an experimental work by Daniel Thalmann and others entitled Rendez-vous à Montréal, but it gained a certain cachet through repetition. As 3D software became more accessible and usable in the late 1990s, many hobbyist CGI-ers involved themselves in modelling current and past celebrities, and only in the last three years has doubt about whether a persons appearance is copyrightable caused their celebrity renders to disappear from the likes of enthusiast sites such as Renderosity, 3D commune, Poser Pros and – most infamously – Renderotica.

But the meshes are still available, usually with non-disclosing generic names that hint at their celebrity origins. Movies are being made with long-dead stars, and I’m here to tell you, flat-out, that they’re not staging Hamlet.

Back in the mainstream – and better funded – world, Laurence Olivier was brought back from the dead rather ineffectively in Sky Captain And The World Of Tomorrow (2005), and perhaps the current culture’s obsession with The New means that only the greatest and most iconic luminaries of the silver screen will find themselves reincarnated and getting post-mortem pay-cheques. But if Angelina is still voicing her digital doppelganger at age 55, what are the chances that the 3D version will age with her?

Films that we can effectively recast via our remote controls aren’t coming anytime soon , but the use of the likeness and mannerisms of expired stars is something of a legal quandary, and it may turn out to be no more problematic to revive Marilyn Monroe’s film career than it is to hire someone who looks like her.

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Perhaps vector-defined combinations of certain body-face relationships will become copyrightable in the future, as the checksum of a persons physical appearance becomes just another commodity to be protected and traded in Tinseltown.

Martin writes his (mostly) sci-fi column every Friday at Den Of Geek.