Real Actors or Fakes? Aren’t They All Fake Anyway?

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Real Actors or Fakes? Aren’t They All Fake Anyway?

By Grayson Walloga

Virtual actors are fully reconstructed digital copies of actors.[1] This technology is not at all new, as many films in the past used computer-generated imagery (CGI) as makeup or to create extras for background shots.[2] Virtual actors are becoming more prominently used in Hollywood blockbusters. All of the major films in the last decade have made extensive use of CGI, be it for huge action set pieces or on actors’ physical appearances.[3] Movies today rely more on CGI for the appearances of characters instead of only using practical effects. Of course, prosthetics still have a role in current films, but are generally combined with CGI.[4] More recently, CGI has been effectively utilized to de-age actors for specific roles or scenes including Robert Downey Jr., Johnny Depp, and Michael Douglas.[5]

While those special effects may cost a pretty penny, it should be noted that some of the biggest movies of the 2010s have been ones that employed both fully CGI characters and de-aging technology.[6] Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame (two of the top three grossing films of the 2010s) both featured a litany of digitally created characters including Thanos, Rocket Raccoon, the many aliens of the Black Order, and many more.[7] Chris Evans’s Steve Rogers would also be digitally aged up to look how one would have expected an aged Chris Evans to look like.[8] Aging up an actor is a far more complicated process than de-aging due to the lack of reference material.[9] Full prosthetics were considered but ultimately rejected because of how favorable the digital compositing turned out.[10] Prosthetics were only used specifically for the neck region because they outshined the digital effects.[11]

A modern Hollywood blockbuster puts hundreds of millions of dollars into special effects alone.[12] Movies like Avengers: Endgame or Avatar owed their success in large part to their enormous special effects budgets.[13] Sticking with the Marvel movies, the CGI effects used in Avengers: Endgame cost around the $350 million mark.[14] The investment paid off as the film would gross $2.18 billion worldwide. This might trick movie studios into believing that copious amounts of CGI are needed to make a movie successful, however, the CGI-less Gone with the Wind still remains the highest gross film when adjusted for inflation at an astounding $3.7 billion.[15]

It was not the CGI alone that made the Marvel movies successful. Disney understood that the actors who stayed with the franchise from its humble beginnings were critical to this cinematic universe’s success which is evidenced by how much they paid the most popular characters.[16] Chris Hemsworth got $15 million for his role as Thor in the most recent Avengers movie, a colossal increase from the 150K he received for his first appearance as the character in 2011.[17] Robert Downey Jr., by far the most paid actor in any of the Marvel movies, received $75 million for his Iron man performance in Avengers: Endgame.[18] And for his first appearance as the character? Only $2.5 million.[19] Did Disney really expect to have to see such a drastic pay change for its main actors? It is certainly expected that as a character gets more popular, the actor who portrays him would become more valuable. The studio needs the character to be popular otherwise the films will not be as financially profitable. This creates a sort of adverse relationship between the studio and the actor over the character. They can both succeed and make decent money by working together, but that does not mean alternatives should be cast aside.

Digital actors allow movie studios to cut out some of the cost that would go into paying a popular and demanding actor. There would be a substantial cost upfront, and as discussed above those effects are not cheap, but in the long run studios would see a lucrative payoff if they were interested in creating a cinematic universe like the Marvel Cinematic Universe. New talent is hard to discover, so why not just create the new talent yourself? Or in the case of tragedy, such as the untimely death of Paul Walker, a digital actor can be used to substitute for the real deal.[20] Concerned your outspoken actor is going to say the wrong thing and need to be replaced? Should have digitally created the character instead. Obviously, there would be major legal problems for the studio if it simply made a copy of someone and did as it pleased. However, even if the studio claimed to have created a character from scratch, that digital actor may still look similar enough to an actual person to raise questions about its origins.[21]

20 years ago, Square Pictures made a little movie from 2001 called Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It was an entirely CGI film, stylized to be photo-realistic, and pushed the boundaries of digital effects for the time.[22] The film stared a digitally created Aki Ross who was planned to appear in other CGI films by Square Pictures.[23] Director Hironobu Sakaguchi had this to say about the film: “The vision I have is to take the characters that we have in this movie and basically help them be viewed as real actors and actresses. And so, we sort of become a talent agency.” The film would ultimately be remembered as a commercial disappointment and the plans to have these digital actors appear in other movies was never pursued.[24] Technology has improved greatly in the past 20 years. Maybe it is still to early for Sakauchi’s vision to be realized. Maybe it is just around the corner.

[1] Ricky Miller, THE VIRTUAL ACTOR: HOLLYWOOD’S NEW LEADING MAN, Control Forever (Dec. 14, 2017), https://controlforever.com/read/rise-of-virtual-actors/.

[2] Id.

[3] See Computer-Generated Imagery, ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/terms/computer-generated_imagery.htm (last visited Nov. 11, 2021).

[4] A GUIDE TO PROSTHETICS IN FILM, Iver Make-Up Academy (May 12, 2018), https://www.iveracademy.co.uk/blog/2018/a-guide-to-prosthetics-in-film/.

[5] Brian Welk, 22 Actors Digitally De-Aged on Film, From Brad Pitt to Robert De Niro (Photos), The Wrap (Oct. 8, 2019), https://www.thewrap.com/actors-who-have-been-de-aged-on-film-from-brad-pitt-to-robert-de-niro-photos/.

[6] See generally pattap-21567, The 50 Highest Grossing Movies of the 2010s (Worldwide), IMDb (Apr. 11, 2018), https://www.imdb.com/list/ls026040906/ (last updated June 2021).

[7] Avengers: Infinity War (2018) Full Cast & Crew, IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4154756/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ql_cl (last visited Nov. 11, 2021); see also Avengers: Endgame (2019) Full Cast and Crew, IMDb, https://www.imdb.com/title/tt4154796/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ql_cl (last visited Nov. 11, 2021).

[8] Daniel, HOW LOLA VFX TURNED CHRIS EVANS INTO A 119-YEAR-OLD CAPTAIN AMERICA, Bold Entrance (Sept. 9, 2019), https://boldentrance.com/lola-vfx-chris-evans-old-captain-america/.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Id.

[12] How much are visual effects for Hollywood movies (and why)?, Nuts Computer Graphics (Jan. 24, 2019), https://www.nutscomputergraphics.com/en/how-much-are-visual-effects-for-hollywood-movies-and-why/.

[13] Id.

[14] Tina Lee, Breakthrough (and Expensive!) CGI Scenes in MCU Movies, Academy of Animated Art, https://academyofanimatedart.com/breakthrough-and-expensive-cgi-scenes-in-mcu-movies/ (last updated May, 8 2021).

[15] Jake Lucas, The Top 20 Box Office Earners Ever: Adjusted for Inflation, SELFi (May 7, 2021), https://selfi.com/the-top-20-box-office-earners-ever-adjusted-for-inflation/.

[16] Jason Guerrasio, How Much Disney Paid Scarlett Johansson Black Widow Other Marvel Stars, Insider (Aug 1, 2021), https://www.insider.com/how-much-disney-paid-scarlett-johansson-black-widow-other-marvel-stars#-1.

[17] Id.

[18] Id.

[19] Id.

[20] Double the Fun: How Digital Actors Are Changing Entertainment Industry, IPQuorum (Jan. 20, 2020), https://ipquorum.ru/en/ip-blog-en/double-the-fun-how-digital-actors-are-changing-entertainment-industry/.

[21] See generally Steinberg v. Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. 663 F. Supp. 706 (S.D.N.Y. 1987).

[22] John Edgar Park, Behind the Scenes on ‘Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within’, Animation World Network (Sept. 10, 2001), https://www.awn.com/animationworld/behind-scenes-final-fantasy-spirits-within.

[23] Rick Lyman, Movie Stars Fear Inroads By Upstart Digital Actors, N.Y. Times (July 8, 2001), https://www.nytimes.com/2001/07/08/us/movie-stars-fear-inroads-by-upstart-digital-actors.html.

[24] Volodymyr Bilyk, Tragedy of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”, Medium (Oct. 4, 2017), https://volodymyrbilyk.medium.com/tragedy-of-final-fantasy-the-spirits-within-cfe92b6a7903.

Image Source: https://www.wired.com/2013/03/luxion-keyshot