Updated: Oct 28, 2018
Actors are coming back from the dead and they have been for a while.
Due to the advancement in CGI technology, film studios have reached the point where they can not only implant the work of deceased film stars into new films but actually create new material from them. Due to a mixture of technical know-how and computer-generated wizardry, departed stars across the globe are being resurrected to posthumously complete roles or star in new ones wherever casting directors deem them the ‘perfect fit’. Amongst those who’ve had this treatment, Carrie Fisher has been famously digitally recreated for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story using reintegrated footage from A New Hope, Audrey Hepburn found herself reimagined in a Galaxy Chocolate advert and Paul Walker “completed shooting” Furious 7 after his tragic road accident. Even Tupac was brought back for a final performance on stage at Coachella by means of hologram!
But are these resurrected actors really back from the dead? Let’s delve a little deeper.
In her brilliant article titled Im(possible) Performances, Joanne Frears, a Solicitor and Leader in IP/Technology Law from Lionhead Law Ltd., outlines the legal implications of using an artist posthumously in a work. She asks why companies are keen to use the images of dead celebrities (known as “delebs”) and argues that advertisers beckon consumers to buy into the idea of "cheating death” when they use a passed celebrity to plug their product. Within the limits of law, celebrities have been advertising everything from milk (Lemmy of Motorhead) to Oxo Cubes (Lynda Bellingham) to the derision of many fans, who argue the star themselves would never have agreed to these product placements when they were alive.
But this creates a philosophical question: even though their image is being used, to what degree can posthumous roles be said to be the work of the stars themselves? Are they actually cheating death?
Is it a question of consent?
Frears writes that many celebrities, such as Robin Williams, so concerned with the idea of having no control over their image after death, have now turned to including “non-ressurection” clauses in their wills. Such a clause stops their image from being used on anything posthumously, without prior consent, for a set time period. Given this clause is not infinite, one can’t help but think any star concerned enough to include it in their will might just wish it could be.
So, if the celebrity themselves are against starring in a given posthumous role, can their part in that role really be said to be their own work?
A question of consent has opened up, which we should quickly address. One could argue that getting ‘delebs' to play roles they haven’t explicitly consented to is similar to a hostage being forced to speak into a camera: both might go through the motions but neither are in a situation they have chosen to be in.
It could be argued this is a false equivalency, because the ‘deleb’ at least has the option of declining consent, unlike the hostage, due to the option of having a “non-ressurection” clause in their will. But what about ‘delebs’ that unintentionally omitted this clause from their wills? After all, it is also the case that an absence of a ‘no, I don’t want to star in the role‘ doesn’t equate to a ‘yes, I will star in the role’, thus making the two scenarios – hostage and role-starring – once again similar.
It could even be argued that the situation the posthumous celebrity finds themselves in is theoretically worse for consent than the hostage. Why? Because the hostage at least has the option to rebel against their captor’s requests, however dire the consequences, whereas the deleb is no longer alive to make decisions and is therefore at the will of the editor who controls their every movement on screen.
A Puppet and Its Master?
Which takes us back to the question: can a posthumous star’s part in a role really be said to be the star’s own work?
We touched on something briefly that seems to hint at a response to this: the fact that, on screen, a deleb is controlled by the CGI artist who places them into the film. Thus, maybe the work is actually that of the CGI artist and nothing to do with deleb at all?
We can think of this scenario as similar to that of a puppet and its master. When a puppet is being operated, we would be unlikely to say that the movement of the puppet is the work of the puppet. On the contrary, we’d attribute the movement of the puppet to the fine handiwork of the puppet master – a relationship mirrored in the relationship between the CGI artist and the deceased film star.
But is it really fair to say the deleb has no claim to this being their own work? The whole point of a deceased celebrity being used in a role is the persona they bring to the project: their own 'X Factor’ that no other person could achieve in quite the same way. This is surely something a CGI artist can only emulate and not create? They are not the celebrity in question with the ‘X Factor’ in question and they will not be the person who originally brings this persona to the screen. It seems the star’s unique quality – their persona – is the thing that keeps them “alive”.
A Matter of Recognition?
Which leads to the crux of the issue. Maybe “non-ressurection” clauses having an expiry date is the key to the issue and secretly genius. Maybe the extent to which a role can be considered the deceased celebrity's work is a matter of degree to which it is true to that celebrity – something that lack of first-hand sources, appearance and audience recognition can deplete. Things that are, crucially, degraded by time.
For example, by the time year 2039 comes round and Robin Williams’ non-ressurection clause runs out, his image may no longer be easy to recreate. Due to a lack of first-hand source material, through people who knew him personally and could help recreate his persona, the Robin that posthumously makes it back onto our screens may be a world away from the one we knew. The way he moves might be altered, his skin might be retouched and the audience of 2039 might even fail to recognise the person in front of them, who supposedly is Robin Williams, as Robin Williams. Thus the 2039 Robin Williams would not end up being true to the formerly alive Robin Williams and the work 2039 Robin Williams does would not be considered an extension of the work of the formerly alive Robin Williams.
Hence, whether a celebrity can be truly “resurrected” is likely a matter of recognition. If we recognise the person and persona on screen as the celebrity we loved for the films they starred in, the songs they sang or the plays they performed, then we are likely to attribute the work to that celebrity. However, if we no longer recognise the person or persona – be it due to, for example, to the way they behave or the way they look – then we will probably blast the CGI artist for a poor job recreating the celebrity and not recognise the role as the celebrity’s own work.
In the end, it’s our own memories that decide what truly keeps deceased celebrities living on. So long as the person and persona we see on screen conforms to how we remember that celebrity being when they were alive, then their careers in the spotlight making us laugh until we cry, cry until we howl and howl until we laugh again may well be eternal.
The original article Im(possible) Performances, written by Joanne Frears, can be found at: https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/impossible-performances-joanne-frears/
Want to get involved in the discussion? Scroll down to leave a comment below!