Which actor/actress would you have play in a movie about you? This is a common but compelling question that I’ve heard in my fair share of icebreaker questions over the years. While we can toy with the idea of what celebrity would best be able to recreate your likeness (I’d choose Ben Stiller for mine), Hollywood has developed technology that may erase the need for such.
Peter Cushing has been dead for 22 years, but if you saw Disney’s hit film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story you would’ve seen his likeness as General Moff Tarkin, who he played in the original Star Wars Trilogy. This movie would’ve felt incomplete without Tarkin, who is the driving force (no pun intended) of both Rogue One and Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, the Death Star. But Disney didn’t resurrect or recast Cushing; they used a body actor as his base and recreated his head and face using computer generated imagery (CGI).
Using CGI to recreate the dead is nothing new in Hollywood for characters who are too embedded in the story to simply write-off. Following Paul Walkers death in 2013, 350 they recreated his Furious 7’s final scene with shots from past movies along with the help of his brothers (whose faces were digitally edited to appear like their deceased brother). This last scene was viewed as a respectful farewell for an actor who had been such a big part of the mammoth franchise.
What makes Rogue One so different is that Cushing didn’t die during production like Walker did. Instead, conscious planning was made to completely recreate his likeness because the directors believed that Cushing’s character was too integral to simply not include or recast to a different actor. The recently deceased Carrie Fisher was also added in, although at a lesser role.
But how does one get compensated for their post humorous likeness? Rogue One and Furious 7 each grossed over $1 billion, so being a beneficiary to Cushing or Walker would’ve paid handsomely. But as we’ve seen in the past, likeness rights are a complicated issue.
Electronic Arts, producers of hit video games like Madden NFL and Battlefield 1, was engaged in a legal battle over likeness that ended their extremely popular NCAA Football and Basketball video games. A former NCAA basketball player, UCLA’s Ed O’Bannon, was featured in EA’s game and sued because the game featured his likeness without compensating him. Because of the NCAA’s amateurism rules, exact player information could not be used. EA worked around that rule for years by giving all players generic names and face designs.
O’Bannon argued that his likeness had in fact been used by EA, and eventually won the case. In O’Bannon vs. the NCAA, the court ruled that former NCAA basketball and football players featured in these games were owed up to $5,000, with the average being around $1,000, from the NCAA because their likeness rights were violated.
What’s so interesting is how likeness is defined by this case. In those NCAA sports, video games players’ ethnicity, home state, height, and weight were all featured while using generic faces and not including their names. For example, 2012 Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel had his information nearly identical to what he was listed in his real life collegiate biography: Name: QB #2; height: 6’1”; weight: 205lbs; hometown: Benbrook, Texas. If such general information can be defined as likeness, then what does that mean for someone whose specific appearance, voice and mannerisms are being used to mirror their real life personas?
A similar case occurred in the 2013 video game The Last of Us where the image, voice and even sexuality of actress Ellen Paige mirrored that of the game’s main character, Ellie. Paige never received any royalties or credit, but she did comment saying, “I am flattered that they ripped off my likeness,” but things became dicey as she was featured in another video game “but I am actually acting in a video game called Beyond Two Souls, so it was not appreciated.” Interestingly enough, both Beyond Two Souls and The Last of Us were produced by Sony owned developers.
This highlights the vague line that exists between what exactly is and isn’t use of one’s likeness. Had a lawsuit been filed in the same sort of context as O’Bannon vs. the NCAA, Page would’ve won. The consequences for the game’s designer, Naughty Dog, were nonexistent while EA had to shut down the NCAA video game franchise, which generated $1.3 billion in revenue from 1998-2013 in the United States alone.
There is an obvious ethical conundrum here. Production companies have the power to completely recreate an actor or actress (dead or alive) in any role they desire. Moreover, it points to a cultural lag in the law. A cultural lag is a term sociologists use to define a gap between technological development of a society and its moral or legal institutions. In terms of likeness, CGI technology has become so advanced in such a short period of time that we have no laws to restrict their use in an appropriate and ethical manner. Because when it comes to likeness, the blurred lines between what is and isn’t likeness could have large financial implications for both production companies and the individuals depicted.
The late great Robin Williams placed rights to his name and likeness via a trust prior to his death. And while that sounds like a tremendous idea if you’re in the public eye, they expire in 2039. That strikes me as a short amount of time, considering copyright laws in the United States cover an author for much longer.
Copyright law as we know it in the United States took effect on January 1st, 1978. These laws protect the rights of publication for 70 years after the author’s death and up to 120 years depending on circumstance. It’s also important to note the cultural lag in this law. The printing press had been invented in 1440 and it took over 500 years for concrete laws about copyrighting to be established.
Comparing thespians to authors may be a bit of a stretch, but the connection is still relevant. Both fields involve the intellect and talent of their creator that make them unique; thus, they deserve just credit. While most literary works become outdated, there are certain novels that provide an invaluable snapshot of history that makes them readable for centuries to come. It wouldn’t surprise me if that became the case with actors, too. James Dean, Marlon Brando and Lucille Ball could all have their likeness recreated to capture a certain era of acting and history.
As is the case with any sort of technology, there are those that just don’t like CGI. CGI can be overdone making a non-animated film look just the opposite. The original Lord of the Rings trilogy and their subsequently made prequel trilogy, The Hobbit, is a perfect example of the fine line that must be walked in using CGI. Throughout the first trilogy CGI is peppered in, so one hardly even notices its existence while the latter made prequels that used CGI like Paula Deen uses butter.
Like any new technology, it will only improve with time to get to the point where we can’t notice certain actors are digitally recreated. And due to the increasing use of CGI in film, I would expect more people in the public eye to take it upon themselves to establish similar trusts to Williams’. That way their beneficiaries would be compensated appropriately and their likeness could be used without exploitation but with respect.
Walter Hudson January 2017. 2017. “Should Hollywood Bring Actors Back from the Dead with CGI?” Lifestyle. Accessed April 26. https://pjmedia.com/lifestyle/2017/01/02/should-hollywood-bring-actors-back-from-the-dead-with-cgi/.
Groves, Roger. 2017. “EA Sports Will Still Score Even More Financial Touchdowns Without The NCAA.” Forbes. Accessed April 26. http://www.forbes.com/sites/rogergroves/2013/09/28/ea-sports-will-still-score-even-more-financial-touchdowns-without-the-ncaa/.
“How ‘Furious 7’ Brought the Late Paul Walker Back to Life.” 2017. The Hollywood Reporter. Accessed April 26. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/behind-screen/how-furious-7-brought-late-845763.
McCann, Michael. 2017. “What Appeals Court Ruling Means for O’Bannon, NCAA.” SI.com. Accessed April 26. https://www.si.com/college-basketball/2015/09/30/ed-obannon-ncaa-lawsuit-appeals-court-ruling.
Plunkett, Luke. 2017. “Ellen Page Says The Last Of Us’ Ellie ‘Ripped Off My Likeness.’” Kotaku. Accessed April 26. http://kotaku.com/famous-actor-sounds-upset-about-the-last-of-us-ellie-551365129.
“‘Rogue One’: How Visual Effects Made the Return of Some Iconic ‘Star Wars’ Characters Possible.” 2017. The Hollywood Reporter. Accessed April 26. http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/rogue-one-how-grand-moff-tarkin-peter-cushing-returned-957258.
“Rogue One’s CGI Resurrection Was Impressive, but Was It Ethical?” 2016. The Independent. December 19. http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/films/news/rogue-one-cgi-grand-moff-tarkin-actor-peter-cushing-princess-leia-carrie-fisher-animated-a7483991.html.
Tartaglione, Nancy, and Nancy Tartaglione. 2017. “‘Rogue One’ Blasts Past $1B At Global Box Office; ‘Moana’ Sails To $500M+.” Deadline. January 24. http://deadline.com/2017/01/rogue-one-star-wars-crosses-1-billion-disney-moana-500-million-worldwide-box-office-1201891739/.