By James DeRuvo (doddleNEWS)
There’s a huge debate going on among movie fans, and Star Wars fans specifically, if digitally resurrecting an actor to craft a new performance in a film is ethical. And that is a conversation to have, but technologically, how did ILM, Lucasfilm and Disney actually bring Peter Cushing back from the grave to cast the evil shadow of Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One? And will it become a more common occurance? (Update: New video added.)
“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears from Industrial Light and Magic. John (Knoll) was always like ‘no we can do this, we can do it.” He was very confident, and we … you know, to be honest, a lot of people were nervous the whole time, like ‘is this gonna happen?’ And then we went all or nothing in.” – Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, interview with The Radio Times
The shock wasn’t that Tarkin was in this well-crafted prequel, the shock was just how good the portrayal of Peter Cushing’s CGI likeness actually was. Not only did it look about as close to reality as we have ever seen to date, but the performance portrayed of the evil Tarkin was absolutely spot on. (To be fair, some fans and critics didn’t like it, and said they were taken out of the movie.)
This is one of the reasons why I have no problem with cinematically bringing Tarkin back to life for Rogue One, because the character’s behavior was exactly consistent. But how did they do what even ILM called “one of the most complex and costly CGI recreations ever?” That’s where things get interesting.
Here’s a new video from ABC News:
This isn’t really the first time we’ve seen this either. We’ve seen filmmakers make Brad Pitt look younger and older in Benjamin Button (2007), Robert Downey Jr. go back decades in Captain America: Civil War (2016), and even Sir Patrick Stewart and Sir Ian McKellan looked many years younger in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006). But all three are very much alive.
For Tarkin, it was going to be touchy because Cushing had died in 1994. Furious 7 broke serious ground on this concept with a final goodbye to Paul Walker, who had died in the middle of production. But before that, it was only used to put actors like Fred Astaire and Marilyn Monroe in TV commercials or Bogart in an episode of Tales From The Crypt.
With Furious 7, they wanted to give an emotional goodbye to Walker and his character, and they were able to, thanks to using his brothers as stand-ins for the late actor and the required VFX.
“We’re transforming the actor’s appearance to look like another character, but just using digital technology.” – Rogue One VFX Supervisor John Knoll, NY Times
Visual Effects maestros had to find someone with a similar facial bone structure to Cushing, much like the VFX wizards did with Walker via his brothers. That’s where British actor Guy Henry (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) came in.
With the same long and angular jawbone line and voice similar to Cushing’s, Henry was hired to provide motion capture and be a body double as Tarkin. He also ended up being able to do a pretty mean Tarkin impression, giving Disney the metadata and tools they need to build on. That just goes to show the power of Star Wars when an actor is willing to basically be a body double in order to be in the film! (VFX experts did the same thing with a stand-in for Armie Hammer in 2010’s The Social Network, when the Winklevoss twins shared a scene.)
They then had to actually overlaying Cushing’s likeness onto Henry’s face for the CGI recreation in Rogue One. Cushing was shot almost completely from the waist up for his performance as Tarkin in the original Star Wars, because Cushing hated having to wear the knee high cavalry boots that were a part of his costume.
Eventually, director Lucas relented from all Cushing’s complaining and allowed him to wear bedroom slippers (I love that dichotomy, a man who ordered the destruction of a planet wearing his slippers!). Lucas just shot him from the waste up or behind furniture. But that presented it’s own problems: There were’t any full body shots of Cushing as Tarkin.
Disney had to find other performances over the course of Cushing’s career, which included his work as Sherlock Holmes and in numerous horror films in order to get his gait as he walked around, how he stood, and so on. The result was going through these hours of footage and create a proper 3D model of Cushing, and then combining it with Guy Henry’s performance to bring Tarkin back from the cinematic grave.
Some think that this is akin to stealing or exploiting an actor without their consent or payment, but a California State Law was passed years ago that requires permission from a deceased actor’s estate for up to 70 years after death. SPOILER ALERT if you haven’t seen Rogue One!! They had no problems creating a young Princess Leia for the final shot, because actress Carrie Fisher was alive at the time. Should Disney need to portray a young Leia for Episode IX, which I pray they don’t, that law would now come into effect with her passing.
“We’re not planning on doing this digital re-creation extensively from now on. It just made sense for this particular movie.” – Knoll (NY Times)
But Rogue One Visual Effects supervisor John Knoll (who actually pitched Rogue One to Lucasfilm) thinks the cause for concern is much ado about nothing. He’s rather doubtful this technique will become the norm in Hollywood.
“I don’t imagine that happening,” Knoll told the NY Times. “This was done for very solid and defendable story reasons. This is a character that is very important to telling this kind of story. It is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to do. I don’t imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner.”
To tell you the truth, I didn’t mind it at all. The portrayal of Tarkin, which was actually quite technically impressive, didn’t change the character in anyway, nor how Cushing portrayed him. And some say it was the best acting in the film for a man who’s been gone for 20 years.
But Knoll has a point, creating a performance from a deceased actor is far too labor intensive and expensive for budget-conscious productions to undertake, just because you can. But Rogue One simply couldn’t have Tarkin there, since it would make his presence in the original film out of nowhere (barring a hologram, as some have suggested).
He needed context, and to recast him, as Lucas did for a brief appearance in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, was rather lacking (see left). Sure you could have had Henry just play the role with makeup effects and some CGI enhancements, but it would be fooling nobody.
Tarkin’s shadow casts across the Galaxy from the Death Star in the film. He HAD to be there.
“If he’s not in the movie, we’re going to have to explain why he’s not in the movie,” remarked Kiri Hart, a Lucasfilm Story Group exec and Rogue One co-producer. “This is kind of his thing.”