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The growing business of resurrecting dead stars

December 17, 2019

They're back! Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia in the Star Wars films, James Dean in a Vietnam War epic, or Amy Winehouse touring as a hologram. But is it always a good idea to digitally resurrect dead celebrities?

Carrie Fisher im Film Star Wars Episode IX The Rise of Skywalker
Image: Imago Images/Lucasfilm

Carrie Fisher, who died in 2016, appears posthumously in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, released worldwide this week.

Even though computer-generated digital effects were used to integrate her once again as Princess Leia in the new film, her acting performance was not created through CGI. Director J.J. Abrams and the production team rather crafted unused footage from previous Star Wars shoots into their new story.

Afterlife controversy

While fans were enthusiastic about Fisher's posthumous farewell, another planned "resurrection" of a dead star triggered the opposite reaction last month. 

In November, the production company Magic City Films announced that the late James Dean would be given a "secondary lead role" in their Vietnam War drama, Finding Jack. The cultural icon, who starred in Rebel Without a Cause and East of Eden, died in a car crash in 1955 at the age of 24. 

The announcement outraged many observers — especially because the producers, instead of openly admitting they were going for a publicity stunt, claimed there simply weren't any suitable actors out there for the part. 

"We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean," said director Anton Ernst.

There have been a number of dead celebrities who were "resurrected" through CGI in the past, but most commonly to complete a few scenes in a film whose shoot was already underway. The scenes were created using existing footage, such as in Carrie Fisher's case.

An entirely new performance was however needed to have Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, appear in the 2016 Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But here too, it was at least linked to a previously existing role.

To resurrect the Grand Moff Tarkin character, as well as a young Princess Leia Organa, actors Guy Henry and Ingvild Deila were selected for their resemblance to Cushing and Fisher in the original 1977 Star Wars movie. Their performance was then digitally enhanced afterwards.

To get "James Dean" to perform those "extreme complex character arcs," an actual actor serving as his double still needs to be found. The production company's "months of research" are not over yet.

Growing catalog of resurrected stars

The announcement that James Dean would be starring in an upcoming movie was followed a few days later by the news in Variety magazine that a newly created company, Worldwide XR, was aiming "to bring digital humans to traditional film as well as augmented and virtual reality."

Along with James Dean, Worldwide XR represents more than 400 deceased celebrities — Hollywood icons, musicians, athletes and historical figures. Malcolm X, Chuck Berry and Josephine Baker are alongside Jerry Garcia, Ingrid Bergmanand Neil Armstrong in their catalog of rights.

Dead musicians have been appearing as holograms as well, such as rapper Tupac at Coachella in 2012 — 16 years after his murder — and Michael Jackson at the Billboard Music Award in 2014.

Digital recreations of singer-songwriter Roy Orbison and opera legend Maria Callas have allowed the deceased stars to launch international tours in 2018. The company behind the stage productions, BASE Entertainment, said it would be making $25-30 million (€22.5-27 million) from the tours.   

Here too, the "holograms" also require body doubles to create initial performances that are then digitally enhanced.

Perils of digital necromancy

This can also lead to its own set of problems. BASE Entertainment had announced a posthumous Amy Winehouse tour, but "challenges and sensitivities" led the company to put the project on hold earlier this year.

With the growing phenomenon of "digital necromancy," as the trend of resurrecting dead stars has been called, more and more celebrities are looking into the details of how their image will be used once they have died.

Motion capture: Human holograms go viral

Before his death in 2014, actor Robin Williams had already explicitly banned the use of his image in film, TV or as a hologram for the next 25 years. Others have specified in their will how their image shouldn't be use to depict sex or violence, or perhaps drugs and alcohol.

But many of the dead stars being resurrected today certainly didn't realize that they might undergo a digital second coming. And not all media productions have been scrupulous about the ethics of their work, either. In one case, Bruce Lee (who died in 1973) was resurrected for a Johnny Walker advertisement. The martial arts icon had abstained from drinking during his lifetime. 

Elizabeth Grenier Kommentarbild App PROVISORISCH
Elizabeth Grenier Culture reporter and editor based in Berlin.