Digital Resurrection

For those of you who have not seen Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and have somehow remained spoiler free, don’t look any further than this and turn back now.  Ye have been warned.

Still with me?  Good deal.

I’ve been wanting to write more about this topic, but I wasn’t entirely certain how to approach it.  But as it turns out, the cast and crew of Rogue One have been very forthcoming about a great many things concerning how this film was made, and the more they offer, the more the wheels in my head turn.  For something so incredibly retro in this latest offering, Star Wars continues to push the bounds of what’s possible in the realm of both practical and digital effects.  As someone who appreciates both sides of that equation as well as the marriage of the two into something greater than the sum of its parts, Rogue One afforded something I thought I’d never see in the course of my lifetime: a new film featuring Peter Cushing.

rogue-one-tarkin

Of course, the ending to this film is now made bittersweet by the cameo appearance of 19-year-old Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia.

We’ve seen motion capture and digital animation before.  Imhotep in The Mummy and Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace represented quantum leaps in this sort of thing back in 1999.  Even back then, George Lucas said that he’d never consider bringing a human being to life digitally.  He understood that at the time there was nothing a computer could do that was equal to a human actor.  But because of contributions that he himself shepherded over the years, we saw Andy Serkis become Gollum for The Lord of the Rings and again for The Hobbit.  For me, this was a feat that allowed a computer to achieve the idea of life precisely because of a human performance.  Many Star Wars characters have since become digitally animated on The Clone Wars and now on Rebels, and on those shows, numbering among the appearances are Tarkin and Leia.  But these series were never designed to compete with live action.

rebels-tarkin rebels-leia

In the world of art, the human form has always been the most difficult to capture, be it in simple line drawings, oil paints, marble sculpture, or the ever-evolving digital realm.  The trick behind it is to achieve the illusion of life itself.  There has to be a transcendent quality that conveys the idea of a soul.  Most often, that idea reflects the soul of the artist reflected onto the character, which is in turn seen by an audience who makes a connection with that reflection and sees the life of a character.  That kind of connection makes all the difference.  When Walt Disney pioneered the idea of real people interacting with animated characters, it constantly propelled him to want to create his animations in the most realistic ways possible for the purpose of making that connection.  You can see these kinds of efforts even his fully-animated features such as Pinocchio or Sleeping Beauty.  It’s a technique and a legacy that George Lucas and others studied and continued.  When you step from a fully animated realm to the real world, it requires the best effort possible to make things line up.  It’s no longer about achieving verisimilitude, such as with films like Who Framed Roger Rabbit?.  It’s about achieving reality itself.  Some argue we’re still not there yet, and that’s probably true.  That’s why the missing ingredients are given to us by real performers.

For Princess Leia, Ingvild Deila’s role isn’t nearly as intensive.  Her similar facial structure gave ILM the framework they needed to achieve the effect, and only one scene was required.  All the same, I still marvel at what they were able to achieve.  In the case of Tarkin, this is considerably more than just a cameo.  Actor Guy Henry is the man behind the Grand Moff for what is a far more labor intensive undertaking.  In 1982, a British mini-series Young Sherlock: The Mystery of Manor House gave us a young Guy Henry in the role of the Great Detective.  (Ironically, I’m writing this one January 6, which is traditionally listed as Sherlock Holmes’ birthday.)  His take on the character follows the study of a series of performances by Peter Cushing in the role.  For Tarkin, things went much further.

Courtesy of ABC News and Nightline, here’s a quick inside look at how they pulled it off:

What amazes me most is how many people are completely dismissive of these performances and the technical wizardry it took to make them happen.  I know… the average person probably doesn’t know or care to know “how the sausage is made.”  For some, it’s enough to know that they did it, and for those people it’ll never be “right” simply because it’s a CG character.  Except it’s not.  It’s a CG enhancement of a live action performance created by intensive study of previous performances.  No matter how you slice, dice, or dismiss it, it’s both a technical and an artistic achievement that deserves high praise for all involved in it.

When I first heard about the possibility of Tarkin’s resurrection in late 2014, I was immediately hesitant.  The old saying goes, you can’t put the genie back in the bottle.  The above video highlights commercials featuring resurrected Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn hocking their respective products in what can only be called a slap in the face to the legacies they left behind.  Fear is the path to the Dark Side, and because we live in a world where people buy tickets to see holographicallly reanimated entertainers at digital concerts, I saw a great many ways to abuse this kind of work.  Where abuses can happen in the world of technology, they usually do.  It’s why weapons are disproportionate to our emotional intelligence as a species, and it’s why the commercial landscape can find new and inventive ways of raiding your bank account.

The thing is, I heartily agree with John Knoll on this one.  Not only did Carrie Fisher and the estate of Peter Cushing sign off on this, I truly believe this is something that Cushing himself would have approved.  He was first and foremost a professional actor.  Bringing characters to life is what he did.  And that’s what happened here.  The team at ILM brought Tarkin and Leia to life where their original actors could no longer play to roles, and it wasn’t arbitrary to do either one.  Tarkin’s role is pivotal as the man at the very heart of the Death Star, and Leia provides that necessary link to A New Hope.  Lucasfilm is taking great care in how their characters — and the actors who portray them — are represented.  If anything, these are being treated with more reverence now by this team than by any other team at any other point in history that you can name.  Maybe that’s why I’m so accepting of this.  They’ve more than earned my trust, and they’ve proven to care about their roles as custodians of the legacies.  It’s a fine line to walk to honor the past and push into the future at the same time.  Lucasfilm and ILM did it, through skill, and above all, through heart.

The rest is just noise.  The internet’s negatively-amplified echo chamber is full of those who cannot or will not understand, all trying desperately to be too cool for the room.  I find it easier all the time to dismiss such reactionary ignorance.  For myself, I am in complete awe over this process and with the results achieved for Rogue One in service to its story.  The more I see, the more I learn, and the more I appreciate it.