The Death of the Actor: Crossing the Uncanny Valley

This was originally written as text for a student project. The mock publication can be viewed here.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, directed by Kerry Conran in 2004, is typically recalled — if people remember it at all — as “the movie where Angelina Jolie wears an eyepatch.”

Set in an alternate version of the late 1930s during which human technology is significantly more advanced than our own real past, extensive CGI was used to give the movie its unusual look. Like most CGI from the aughts, it looks goofy to contemporary viewers. For one thing, the vast majority of Sky Captain was filmed on a stage laid out for CGI to fill in later. Before-and-after shots reveal scenes dependent upon a blank bluescreen canvas, with little more than furniture, the odd prop, and other actors for Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Jude Law to draw inspiration from. The film’s unconventional plot and dated special effects robbed it of its status as something of a groundbreaking movie.

Among Sky Captain’s odd features is the hologram villain played by Laurence Olivier. The hologram isn’t terribly interesting in and of itself. It’s a standard blue head not unlike the holograms projected by R2-D2 in Star Wars. What’s interesting is that Olivier — who from his days on the Old Vic stage into his film career, had been lauded for his incredible physical acting technique — had no use of his physical body for a good fifteen years before Sky Captain was released. He had, in fact, gone to earth months before the Berlin Wall did the same.

The weightily named Dr. Totenkopf hangs like a specter over the events of Sky Captain. (Totenkopf is the German term for the skull-and-crossbones, which takes on a macabre connotation considering who was “playing” him.) Totenkopf is like Harry Lime in The Third Man — often referenced but revealed late in the picture. The reveal of Totenkopf is not so dramatic as the reveal of Lime, but it does save us from having to see a more fully fleshed-out Olivier. It turns out that Totenkopf is no more than a mummified corpse; the hologram itself is the recording of the same man but much younger. What appeared to have been an eugenicist’s ongoing plan for a new humanity is no more than lingering horrors. It is revealed that Totenkopf died before he could build a self-destruct system into his plan; in fact, the last testament he made is an apology, not a crowing. “The World of Tomorrow,” the young Totenkopf’s name for his sadistic and unstoppable plan, is an arrogant promise for the living to confront in the film’s final act.

Thus we are saved Olivier, even though we see him in “hologram” form and hear him say things like, “I am the last, desperate chance for a doomed planet” and “Who dares come before me! Who dares enter this place!” These statements were culled from some amount of archival footage of the young Olivier held by the BBC; it is very much his voice we hear as well as his face we see.

Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was never a box office success, and for all its inventiveness remains a fairly obscure picture. If it had been received more warmly — or even if it had been competitive with other effects-heavy pictures of that year, such as The Polar Express or The Day After Tomorrow — we might have stumbled into a debate rather like the one triggered by Rogue One and its CGI resurrection of Peter Cushing that we are now having more than a decade later.

Movie history tells us that a prematurely dead actor in a movie can be good for business, although the picture itself needs to pull its weight. It stands to reason that had Carole Lombard’s last movie been more along the lines of Twentieth Century or My Man Godfrey­ — that is, a screwball comedy with a handsome man alongside her — audiences would have flooded theaters to see the final performance of the wife of Hollywood’s king, Clark Gable. To Be or Not to Be, an Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Lombard and the funny but homely Jack Benny, was ill-timed. Set in Nazi-occupied Poland and released just two months after Pearl Harbor, it was — suffice it to say — not a hit. From a safer distance, To Be or Not to Be has been recognized as one of Lubitsch’s best pictures, and the Maria Tura character one of Lombard’s best roles.

The quintessential dead Hollywood actor is undoubtedly James Dean, who lived long enough to hear a few months of good press for East of Eden before dying in a legendary car wreck at 24. His ultimate star-making role, Jim Stark in Nicholas Ray’s Rebel Without a Cause, debuted just weeks after his death in September 1955. Rebel Without a Cause was a major hit. More than a year later, with the cult of James Dean already gaining steam, George Stevens’ Giant was released. Both East of Eden and Giant earned Dean Academy Award nominations for Best Actor, and Rebel Without a Cause effectively placed Dean at the forefront of our collective American consciousness when we remember actors who died tragically young.

Dean is hardly the only actor to scrounge up Oscar nods after dying. Although the second Academy Awards, held in 1930, did not strictly nominate anyone, we do know that Jeanne Eagels was reviewed for her scandalous role in The Letter. Eagels died at 39 after a long struggle with drugs and alcohol. Besides Dean and Eagels, there are other major names: Spencer Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, longtime Olivier collaborator Ralph Richardson in Greystoke. Peter Finch won for playing TV news demagogue Howard Beale in Network.

Heath Ledger, who died exactly a year before his nomination was announced for Best Supporting Actor as the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, won that prize posthumously. The phenomenon of Dean in Rebel Without a Cause was repeated, and watching a star who had died young in his penultimate role made the film that much more electrifying in the moment. Roger Ebert wondered if Ledger, the “key performer” in The Dark Knight, would follow in Finch’s posthumously victorious footsteps. Andrew Sarris, Carrie Rickey, and Peter Travers all banged the Oscar drum for Ledger as well. Bill Goodykoontz even compared the fullness of Ledger’s performance to Daniel Day-Lewis’ work in There Will Be Blood, which is the best-reviewed acting of the 21st century.

The novelty and tragedy of seeing a recently departed actor on screen is a selling point for any movie and a focal point for viewers. In the case of Heath Ledger, a popular (and incidentally untrue) rumor opined that playing the Joker had brought him into such darkness that caused him to abuse drugs in the first place. The thrill of knowing that a movie could be behind an actor’s death has a certain cachet for viewers: aside from Ledger in The Dark Knight, an obviously unwell Tracy in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner has invited interpretations of a popular figure knowing that he was facing his final days in front of a camera. Ironically, this prestige factor declines when the dead actor’s movie comes out too long after his or her passing. Just as Rebel Without a Cause is essential to Dean’s mystique but his last movie Giant is not, the same is true for Ledger: The Dark Knight has far outstripped The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus in our cultural imagination.

Sometimes, the death of the actor is not merely sensationalized but results in real difficulty for directors and their crews. The first major incident of a director forced by the Reaper to use CGI to place one person’s face onto another was in Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. Oliver Reed, in the role of the slaver and gladiator trainer Proximo, died before he had finished shooting his scenes. The CGI result shows up in one scene where Russell Crowe’s Maximus is speaking across iron bars to Proximo, whose face is sometimes placed in shadow. The CGI is very solid, especially for 2000, and the reality is enhanced by Scott’s lighting effects.

For Furious 7 released in 2015, director James Wan had to navigate the untimely and ironic death of 40-year-old stunt driver Paul Walker, who died in a car crash in 2013. Walker had shot some scenes but Wan, who did not want to kill Walker’s character Brian O’Conner, combined two methods previously used by directors whose stars had died during shooting. Using body doubles — namely, Walker’s two brothers — and technology to “graft” Paul’s face onto Caleb and Cody Walker in head-on shots, Wan managed to create a virtual send-off for Brian O’Conner which proved satisfying for The Fast and the Furious fans worldwide who were perfectly aware of Paul Walker’s untimely death. Furious 7 boasts the sixth-highest worldwide gross in history.

Rogue One, Gareth Edwards’ 2016 entry into the new Star Wars anthology, has to hold some kind of record for repurposing the most actors. Using archive footage from the original 1977 Star Wars, Edwards returned characters Garven Dreis and Dutch Vander — that’s “Red Leader” and “Gold Leader” to you — to action in the climactic space battle of Rogue One. CGI was used to replace the face of actress Ingvild Deila with the 20-year-old face of Carrie Fisher for a short scene at the end of the film; we thus see young Princess Leia as she appeared in A New Hope. (Fisher was still alive during the production of Rogue One; she died less than two weeks after the movie premiered.)

Most famously of all, Peter Cushing was brought back to life, as it were, by extensive CGI. His character, Grand Moff Tarkin, is in truth the primary antagonist of Star Wars; Darth Vader, though far more iconic, has a smaller role. Tarkin is returned to that role in Rogue One, despite the fact that Cushing and his indelible cheekbones died in 1994. The body and voice for Tarkin were provided by Guy Henry, a British actor who bears some resemblance to Cushing just as Deila looks a little like Fisher. Perhaps they would have borne more resemblance to the forty-year-old characters with the help of costume and makeup than the CGI effects; the phrase “uncanny valley” entered the cultural vernacular all over again thanks especially to Tarkin’s revival. The movie was well-received by critics and audiences alike, but the critical response to the CGI face of Tarkin in particular was panned by critics. For every James Berardinelli who called it “ground-breaking work,” there’s half a dozen other reviews which have some scathing critique of the technique. Ty Burr said the new Tarkin was “not all that convincingly pixelated,” and Matt Zoller Seitz went full tech talk: “a bunch of ones and zeros badly imitating a dead man.” Christopher Orr, aside from noting that the special effects didn’t look great, wondered about whether it was “tasteful” to replicate a dead actor’s face.

Guy Henry did a more than passable impression of Cushing’s voice, although it was clearly a recreation of Cushing’s famous clipped English accent that was also the voice, to many cinephiles, of Sherlock Holmes. Perhaps in the future, even Cushing’s voice could be fabricated to a higher standard of indistinguishability. A program created at the University of Montreal called Lyrebird can recreate someone’s voice with just a minute of recorded speech. Granted, in its beta state, the difference between a person’s real voice and his or her Lyrebird voice is as plain as the difference between Peter Cushing and Peter Cushing’s CGI face. Yet Lyrebird is already facing the difficult — and obvious — ethical dilemma of what it means to create a perfect syndication of a person’s speech. In the movies, that could go further in crossing the uncanny valley.

As long as that tricky little aspect of life called mortality is in play, studios, producers, and directors will have to find ways to manage the sad deaths of actors. But Rogue One has changed the game. With an army of technicians and coders who have taken “Death be not proud” as a mantra, any actor — regardless of how little archive footage may remain or how unique his or her facial structure may have been — can be brought back to the point of clear recognition. In Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow it may have suited the plot for Olivier’s Totenkopf to be no more than a dried-up corpse, but would Conran have changed his mind if he could have had Olivier himself, albeit digitally imaged?

It is no secret that the majority of blockbuster films are sequels now. As Neil Gaiman puts it: “Fans know exactly what they want. Fans want more of the last thing they read and they liked. That’s what fans want. They liked that thing you did, they would like another one of those, please.” Studios, having made the decision to choose properties which are frequently low-risk and high-reward rather than more unusual and uneven projects like Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, are likely to continue catering to the desires of fans of those franchises.

Dreamworks and Paramount, the distributors behind the Shrek and Transformers franchises, respectively, hold an advantage. Mike Myers or Peter Cullen could drop dead tomorrow, but their voices would be replaceable should the studios and moviemakers choose to do so; Shrek and Optimus Prime would merely sound different. Should Lyrebird’s technology improve significantly, perhaps even “sounding different” could fade away. Universal could not easily replace its other The Fast and the Furious stars. Ludacris is an only child; Dwayne Johnson’s brother Curtis Bowles never earned the sobriquet “the Rock.” Even when the Harry Potter movies were originally cast, it was assumed that Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson would be replaced at least once by new boys and girls; fans became attached, and the trio (and all of their peers!) stayed on board for eight movies. Rogue One raised a new question which before had gone unasked: how essential is it to maintain visual character continuity in a series which is four decades old? As Hollywood doubles down on the belief that no plot should be rejected because of its age, no matter how tired it is, will we see moviemakers reach back for the people who made the plot come to life? Will it always be Janet Leigh screaming in the shower, or Judy Garland staring up at an unseen rainbow? (Will they superimpose Toto’s face on the new Toto?)

The real question, as we begin our trek across this uncanny valley, is how effective it can become. No matter how good the CGI or the image captures are, can they ever meet audiences’ ever-heightening standards for authenticity? Instinctively, one assumes that a CGI Janet Leigh — or even a CGI Martin Balsam — being stabbed to death would be less frightening than the real people facing their own fake deaths. Instinctively, one assumes that a CGI Ingrid Bergman tearing up at a CGI Humphrey Bogart on a North African airstrip would fail to rouse our sympathies like the unfailing real thing.

The movies sit in a strange zone for us; we know that they are chimerical, fanciful things, and yet we still react to them with such force. The thread of reality in movies — a rope bridge across the uncanny valley, perhaps — is a flimsy one indeed. As viewers, people tend to handle a single bold unreality well enough; if this weren’t true, Walt Disney and Hayao Miyazaki would be anonymous and we’d be put off by The Wizard of Oz and Singin’ in the Rain. But no one can doubt the genuine feeling in Gene Kelly’s electric dancing or Mickey Mouse’s joyful cavorting; unreality is balanced by authenticity. A CGI actor, glaringly inauthentic with our technology, is like extra weight on a scale that can only handle so much heft. The CGI replication takes the viewer out of the flow of the movie and into the flow of outside-movie thoughts. Aside from immersion, we crave connection in our movie experiences. Even experimental films like La jetee or Koyaanisqatsi appeal to our environments and surroundings and in so doing trigger recursive emotional responses that the CGI Tarkin or CGI Leia could not create. Bringing out the dead seems doomed to fail even with perfect recreation, for no unreality in the human mind is so fantastic as raising the dead.

As long as consistency and is a prized element for moviegoers — in performers, in plot points from adapted text, in visual motifs — the possibility of computer generated actors becoming more widespread exists. The history of Hollywood suggests that studios can handle it when the souls of their actors become flight risks. Right now, Hollywood’s present has started to wonder if our technology can clip wings in advance.

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