The James Clayton Column: Computerised cameos

It matters not whether you're dead, or you've never been near the film set. As Terminator Salvation proves, computers will put you in the movie anyway...

I need your clothes, your gun, your car…

During the filming of Gladiator ten years ago, Ridley Scott suddenly found himself in a predicament. Making the Roman epic go on to win Oscars and revive the sword-and-sandal movie for the new millennium, the British director had scenes still to shoot and a dead leading actor in his hands (not literally – Sir Ridley hasn’t, as far as we know, killed anyone or got caught up in a game of ‘Hide the Hollywood Corpse’ yet).

As Oliver Reed suffered a heart attack – supposedly brought on after some characteristic heavy drinking – and passed away on location in Malta, Scott and his crew had a problem. How do they capture the remaining footage necessary for Gladiator now that the man who’s playing Proximo is no longer living?

Luckily, technology has come a long way since Game Of Death was stitched together by Hong Kong studio hacks in the late ‘70s. For Gladiator, the appearance of Oliver Reed was, of course, realised through the amazing special effects that weren’t around when Bruce Lee died. Had CGI been available, I’ve a feeling that the bosses in the HK film industry would’ve gone all out to get Game Of Death finished with a digitalised Lee in order to ride the momentum of the ‘Brucesploitation’ boom.

As it is, the movie – released five years after the demise of the Dragon – is a patchwork mess of stock footage, archive material and makeup model stand-ins hiding their faces from the camera. It’s heartbreaking, horrible stuff – the only stain on Bruce Lee’s cinematic legacy. Only the 15 minutes of fighting in the pagoda tower – including Lee’s battle against 7’2″ basketballer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar – make it ‘a Bruce Lee film’. The rest is an abomination.

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To leave aside my kung fu fanboy fury and return to Ridley Scott’s grand vision of ancient gladiatorial combat, CGI imagery saved the day and was pulled off effectively. It may have cost a few more million dollars and only added two minutes of material to the final movie, but the sublime superimposition of Reed’s 3D face on to a stand-in actor suggested that, armed with digital technology, the limits of even death could be transcended in future filmmaking.

Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns went even further by bringing Marlon Brando back on to the screen from beyond the grave. Re-animating the most revered and respected actor in cinema history is some achievement – not even the makers of The Godfather Part II could secure the presence of Brando, despite the fact that, as Don Vito Corleone, he was arguably the title character. Thanks to CGI and clever manipulation of leftover footage from the 1978 Superman flick, Brandon Routh’s Man of Steel got to listen to the mumblings of a legend long dead in his Fortress of Solitude.

It would be nice to think that the revitalisation of Brando’s Jor-El was motivated by a desire to pay tribute to Superman lore of the past or present the powerful possibilities of nifty technology to cinemagoers, but I can’t help but feel that financial issues were the primary factor. Having forked out a fortune (apparently $3.7million for two weeks of filming) on an actor who refused to memorise lines and dragged production into legal acrimony, I’d say that Warner Bros. saw the Bryan Singer reboot as an ideal opportunity to get some money’s worth out of Brando’s remaining bits. Brando’s not going to be stirring up new law suits now…

The makers of Stretch may want to keep these new millennium acts of necromancy in mind following the death of David Carradine during production in Thailand. It’d be more appropriate to revive the late, great star of Kung Fu and Kill Bill through Shaolin mysticism, but, for the sake of expediency, conjuring up a computer-generated avatar with which to finish shooting is probably more practical.

You don’t even have to be dead to get the digitalised doppelgänger treatment and so it’s to the freshly-released Terminator Salvation that we turn to witness the latest cinematic source of CGI actor substitution. Arnold Schwarzenegger is The Terminator – the two are synonymous. But what are you to do when the icon is more interested in his political career and role as California’s ‘Governator’ than appearing in the latest franchise sequel? Simple – you superimpose a computerised copy of the Austrian Oak into the movie through Industrial Light and Magic. Thanks to technology, the remark “I’ll be back” can be proved accurate time and time again…

Terminator Salvation, consequently, features a fan-pleasing cameo from Pseudo-Arnie back and bare-chested as the T-101 (the original bad-ass evil Terminator of the first film – not the thumbs-up stand-in father figure of Terminator 2: Judgement Day).

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Thinking it over, the prospect of seeing Schwarzenegger’s title protagonist is, bizarrely, the ultimate appealing factor luring me towards the new film. I want to see Terminator Salvation firstly because I like the concept and mythos of the sci-fi series and am intrigued to see how the narrative is extended. I also want to affirm my belief that no director can be as bad as the much-maligned McG is made out to be. The captivating key point though is the prospect of Arnie, even if it is a simulation. It’s true – I’m most excited and moved to spend money on seeing a film just to see how the cameo of a digitally-created character comes about.

I only hope that the virtual vignette is more convincing and smoothly realised than the recent pasting of a fake Patrick Stewart into X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Should the superimposed features of Schwarzenegger’s doppelgänger avoid the over-botoxed look of the Professor X cameo in that film, McG will placate the franchise fans who are rigorously scrutinising Terminator Salvation for any fault. Unfortunately, it’ll probably take more than the presence of Arnie to counter the vicious criticism, which raises the point: if the technology is available, why didn’t the director go further to get the naysayers off his back?

Instead of just solely rendering a Schwarzenegger stand-in, McG could’ve bolstered his blockbuster by additionally bringing up Oliver Reed, Marlon Brando and whoever else he fancied re-animating through digital trickery. With Bruce Lee back on-screen fighting Terminators thanks to the magic of technology, those Charlie’s Angels flicks would be instantly forgiven and forgotten. Use the technology, McG, and remould your reputation. You have the ability to digitalise Bruce Lee and Game Of Death is ready to be remade the right way…

James’ previous column can be found here.