Lola’s Trent Claus Talks to NY Post (Skinny Chris Evans, Robert Downy JR Flashback, …)
The greatest special effect in “Rogue One” isn’t a planet being wiped out or the whizzing dogfights of the rebels’ X-wing fighters. What’s really breathtaking about the new “Star Wars” movie is the way its technical wizards show they’re close to conquering the final visual effects frontier: the human face.
Casual viewers may not even notice, but one of the chief surprises in the movie is the unexpected reappearance of one of Darth Vader’s top officers, Grand Moff Tarkin, played by Peter Cushing. Cushing, who first appeared in 1977’s “Star Wars,” has lots of screen time, pages of dialogue and interactions with other actors such as Ben Mendelsohn, who plays fellow Imperial officer Orson Krennic.
Which is remarkable considering that Cushing died in 1994.
What you’re seeing is a digital performance, a visual effects (VFX) achievement that dazzles precisely because it’s seamless. This isn’t a cheesy, pasted-in effect that repurposes old footage, but a living, breathing, resurrected Cushing. The slender, 6-foot-4 British actor Guy Henry (he played Pius Thicknesse in the final Harry Potter films), who does bear a resemblance to the gaunt Cushing, was hired to play the role on set, in part to avoid the dead-eye effect that plagues simulations of actors. Then the VFX team magically transformed him into Cushing. “One of the best performances in ‘Rogue One’ is by an actor who died in 1994,” ran a headline in the Washington Post last week.
This, it turns out, is what the entire VFX industry has been building up to for all these decades. All those explosions and space chases were just the throat-clearing before the grand statement: Today they are bringing actors back from the dead. We always knew movie stars were gods. Now they’ve become immortal.
The technology isn’t quite finished yet, but it’s close; Cushing looks a little eerie, a little uncanny. But in another five years, the VFX wizards might have figured out the last details of how to resurrect deceased actors. If they can recreate Peter Cushing, they can bring back any other dead actor. This technology opens up so many new creative worlds that this could be the biggest effects breakthrough since the movies gained a soundtrack in 1927’s “The Jazz Singer.”
Cushing in “Rogue One” is the culmination of work that has been developing for quite a few years. When actor Oliver Reed died before completing the filming of 2000’s “Gladiator,” for instance, some body doubles and digital repurposing of scenes he had already shot for the role of Proximo were used to fill in the gaps. A more advanced usage of similar techniques allowed the makers of “Furious 7” to finish Paul Walker’s work after he died in 2013, two years before the movie hit theaters.
More impressive are the VFX in 2011’s “Captain America: The First Avenger.” The strapping Chris Evans went on a digital diet: For the early scenes in which he plays the hapless pre-transformation weakling Steve Rogers, his tree-trunk arms were shrunk into twigs, his Tarzan chest reduced to the dimensions of the average sparrow. Filmmakers had to shoot the scenes three times: Once with Evans, once with a skinny stand-in and once with no one playing Steve in the shot.
Another startling Avengers-related achievement appeared in this summer’s “Captain America: Civil War,” in which Robert Downey Jr.’s Tony Stark is seen in his early 20s in flashbacks. In both movies, the effects were designed by Lola VFX, which also de-aged Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen in 2006’s “X-Men: The Last Stand,” shaved 25 years off Brad Pitt’s face for a few awe-inspiring seconds in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 2008 and pulled off an even more impressive feat in delivering a younger version of Michael Douglas, back in his “Wall Street” era prime, for the prologue to last year’s “Ant-Man.”
The progress is clear — the actors look less and less plastic, less and less artificial.
“It is a similar process to Photoshop that uses some similar tools,” Lola VFX supervisor Trent Claus told The Hollywood Reporter, “but unlike Photoshop, which is done on a single image, we have 24 frames per second of footage. Every feature of the face and body needed to be addressed in some fashion.” For instance, “One thing that happens to all of us is that the skin of the face gradually lowers in certain areas and needs to be ‘lifted’ back to where it was at the age in question.”
Claus told The Post that he worries about “hyper-scrutiny,” saying “oftentimes when a viewer is looking at a shot that they know is an effect, they find ‘mistakes,’ even on portions of the image that are 100 percent real.”
That Downey trick, though, cost some young actor a chance at precious screen time. “Rogue One” could be a Death Star for actors, who have been freaking out about becoming expendable since (at least) 2009’s “Avatar,” in which director James Cameron used actors’ faces as merely the canvases upon which he painted the Na’vi and the avatars on Pandora. Andy Serkis may be a much-relied-upon performer in Hollywood for his “motion-capture acting” — he’s the man underneath Gollum in the “Lord of the Rings” movies and Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” series. But being mostly invisible, he isn’t Johnny Depp or Tom Cruise, and isn’t paid like them. Today’s actors have a whole lot more competition if any performer who ever lived can be brought back to life: Why hire Samuel L. Jackson if you can get Edward G. Robinson? Who wouldn’t love to see an ensemble piece like “Suicide Squad” starring a half-dozen of the greatest stars who ever lived?
Soon, Hollywood will be able to bring back anybody, mix up actors from different eras, bend time to their liking. Emma Stone in her prime could dance with Gene Kelly in his. Paul Newman could do a buddy comedy with Cary Grant. Marilyn Monroe could flirt with Chris Pratt. Jennifer Lawrence could trade wisecracks with Humphrey Bogart. Greta Garbo, Audrey Hepburn, Julie Christie and Sandra Bullock could play a gang of 20-something bank robbers. Kirk Douglas could play Michael Douglas’ son.
There are legal considerations involved. The estates of deceased stars would have to approve any use of their images for commercial purposes thanks to the California Celebrities Rights Act of 1985. The law (which came after a 1979 court case in which the heirs of “Dracula” star Bela Lugosi tried and failed to stop Universal Pictures from using his images without their consent) declared deceased stars were not public property and their estates could continue to enjoy commercial rights to their personalities, for a period of 70 years after the death of the celeb.
Those who control rights to Hollywood royalty have shown increasing eagerness to exploit the deceased actors’ likenesses — even, at times, in situations of dubious taste. Back in 1991, awkwardly copied images in a Diet Coke commercial showed Elton John interacting with footage of James Cagney, Bogart and Louis Armstrong.
A sequel showed Paula Abdul pitching the soda in the company of Grant, Groucho Marx and Kelly. Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner in a 1997 Super Bowl spot. John Wayne rustled up some Coors Lights in another spot the same year.
‘I think it will lead to some pretty bad stuff and a lot of people will complain that their memories of certain stars will be spoiled, but I’ve always thought that this is going to happen one day.’
Those images, though, were blunt, ungainly cut-and-paste jobs, not fresh digital creations of brand-new performances, and though they were interesting novelties when they first started to appear, today they look cheesy, gimmicky, manufactured — the opposite of seamless.
To some, ripping stars out of their original contexts to sell a new product comes across as a kind of desecration: How dare anyone sell out our celluloid idols to the (Dirt) Devil? The Astaire spot, which substituted a Dirt Devil for the hat rack from the “Sunday Jumps” sequence in “Royal Wedding” (1951), aired with the permission of his widow and heir but led to an outcry from movie purists. Astaire was supposed to sell magic, not household devices.
Still, so many stars had such limited opportunities, and new technology promises to give them the opportunities that fate denied them. Carole Lombard died at 33, Monroe at 36. James Dean lived to be only 24. Wouldn’t it honor their memory to extend their careers? Bruce Lee died at 32, his son Brandon at 28. Wouldn’t they have loved to make a martial-arts movie together?
“I understand the argument that the integrity of the old stars is being corrupted, and I think that’s true,” said David Thomson, the venerable film historian and author of “The New Biographical Dictionary of Film.” “But equally I think that these people belong to all of us in a sense. They belong to our cultural history. We fantasize about them, and we’ve made them part of our daydreams and our story.
“I’m also wary of it because I think it will lead to some pretty bad stuff and a lot of people will complain that their memories of certain stars will be spoiled, but I’ve always thought that this is going to happen one day.”
Any technology, though, is only as good as the creative uses to which it is directed. Digital recreations may open up exhilarating possibilities, but throwing Henry Fonda into the mix wouldn’t have made “Fantastic Four” any better. Even Hollywood’s most skillful digital magicians are never going to be able to figure out a way to bring back filmmaker Billy Wilder.