I don't know who coined 'synthespian' but I like it. However, I must wonder why the old Coburn/Finney/Dey flick 'Looker' was not mentioned in this article at all.
Invasion of the synthespians!
The day of the digital actor
By Patti Hartigan, Globe Staff, 05/23/99
It sounds like a plot from a sci-fi pulp, or an old B movie: A snaggle-toothed scientist toils in the laboratory, perfecting his creation. A touch-up here, a tiny tuck there. But this is not some green-gilled monster from the house of Dr. Frankenstein; it's a realistic human with shiny hair, glittering teeth, and liquid eyes. The pressure is on to beat other genetic geniuses racing to create human clones. Suddenly, there's a burst of energy - and voila! - the model comes to life. Blink your eyes, and it's Marilyn Monroe. Blink again, and it's James Dean.
This scenario isn't as far-fetched - or as far off - as it might once have seemed. In this case, the scientists in question are digital doctors: computer programmers developing the software needed to create a photorealistic digital actor, or ''synthespian.'' Special-effects wizards have already created convincing digital dinosaurs and dolls, aliens and ants, stuntmen and superheroes. And the two biggest box office draws of the moment - ''The Mummy'' and a certain prequel that unfolds in a galaxy far, far away - showcase digital creatures.
So why not digital humans? Why not virtual stars?
''The digital actor has been the Holy Grail forever, since the dawn of
3-D computer animation,'' says Brad Lewis, executive producer of visual effects and vice president of Pacific Data Images, the firm that gave life to insects in ''Antz.'' ''There's always been someone trying to do a hand or a face or some aspect of a human being that looked real.''
Some say realistic digital humans will be on-screen within the next five years. These synthespians could be brand-new characters or reincarnations of old legends, long cold in the grave. One Hollywood producer, for instance, is planning a film that would resurrect martial-arts phenomenon Bruce Lee; another is reportedly working on a digital version of an aging screen star (rumored to be Marlon Brando), restoring his youth and making him a contender for a manly role. Another producer got permission to re-create the late George Burns in a film called ''The Best Man,'' and a California firm, Virtual Celebrity Productions, has obtained the rights to digitally reproduce a handful of stars, including Marlene Dietrich and W. C. Fields.
But some veterans of computer animation are wondering whether the quest is worth it. ''I think it's a scientific goal, but I'm not sure it's an artistic goal,'' says Lewis. ''Because it's the Holy Grail, though, there is a movement to achieve it. But once the technology progresses, the industry will come back to the question of `Why?'''
Day of the flying logos
Back in the late '70s, the pioneers in computer animation weren't asking
''Why?'' They were asking ''How?'' There was no shrink-wrapped software
for special effects; they invented it as they went along. Ellen Poon, visual effects supervisor for George Lucas's Industrial Light and Magic and senior technical director for ''Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace,'' got her start in advertising 20 years ago. ''We were doing flying logos,'' she says. ''The computer power wasn't good enough to do anything more complicated than that.''
The technology's leap forward was visible in 1982 with ''Tron,'' the first film to incorporate computer graphics. At the time, the graphics were revolutionary: The plot, however, was revolting. ''We all thought `Tron' would open the floodgates for computer animation in feature films,'' recalls ''Tron'' animator Jeff Kleiser, co-director of the North Adams-based computer animation firm Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co. ''It didn't do well at the box office, so they said, `Oh, computer graphics doesn't work.' `Tron' set back computer graphics a good decade.''
Technology doesn't drive Hollywood: Money does. So despite other breakthroughs in technology over the years, the real push for digital animation didn't occur until the computer-generated ''Toy Story'' raked in millions at the box office in 1995 - and made a small fortune with its line of dolls and accessories. Shortly after the release, Pixar Animation Studios, which made the film for Disney, went public; the stock soared, leaving founder Steve Jobs with more than $1 billion.
Overnight, the race to create digital humans intensified.
By now, computer-generated creatures - once the domain of special-effects masters who built miniatures and puppets and prosthetics - are fairly routine. They fill in regularly for extras and stuntmen, and usually the audience doesn't even notice (see accompanying story).
But it's one thing to create crowd scenes that flash across the scene for a second; it's another thing entirely to emulate hair, skin, and facial expressions for major characters. The giant ape in last year's ''Mighty Joe Young'' solved the hair problem, making King Kong look like a big guy on his way to a costume party. And ''Antz'' starred creatures that communicated complex emotions, even if they were just a bunch of pests.
Still, no one has found a way to capture a human soul with a mathematical
formula. And many of the folks who write the code insist that actors are
never going to be made obsolete. ''A human being brings something to the
screen that is a function of their working mind,'' says John Andrew
Berton Jr., Industrial Light and Magic's visual effects supervisor for
''The Mummy.'' ''There is inspiration there; it happens on the fly. You
can't simulate that stuff. It's not a mathematical model. You can't confuse the computers with the artists. They're just a tool.''
The downside of FX
Berton and others often cite George Lucas, the industry guru who insists that ''Star Wars'' is primarily about the story, not the special effects or the toy collectibles or the pizza boxes. ''We have to make sure that what we're doing serves the story, not the interest of advancing the art of making digital characters,'' Berton says.
But that is precisely what has fueled criticism of both ''The Mummy'' and
''Phantom Menace.'' In both cases, the computer steals the show, chewing
up the very scenery it helped create. Is the quest for the perfect digital actor really worth it if the price is a loss of humanity?
That's a question the Screen Actors Guild is mulling as it watches the technology evolve. Guild president Richard Masur scoffs at the idea that synthespians will ever replace the real thing. ''Actors are not inert objects to be manipulated by directors or technicians or even puppeteers,'' he says. ''When you talk about replacing them, you assume that they have no creative input, no character choice. You're cutting out one of the major contributors to the finished work when you cut an actor out of the process.''
And face it, movies have always been about illusion. ''Look, reality has been messed with since the beginning of movies,'' says Masur. ''In the original silent `Ben Hur,' they did the chariot scene with one row of living people in the arena. The rest were wooden cutouts moving on sticks, but it looked like hundreds of people. In `Titanic,' there were a lot of virtual people sliding into the water. They used to do it by throwing dummies. The only change is that the technology is more effective.''
But how far will that technology go? Experimentation is taking place in both popular culture and the fine arts. The video-game industry is attempting to develop interactive characters with some degree of artificial intelligence. Theme park attractions with 3-D superheroes are wildly popular; Kleiser's firm just completed a ride called ''The Amazing Adventures of Spiderman'' for the new Universal Studios park in Orlando, Fla. At the same time, he also worked on ''Monsters of Grace,'' the Philip Glass-Robert Wilson opera that is told through a three-dimensional film featuring a digital family.
Dead celebrities society
And then there's Virtual Celebrity Productions, the California company that is aiming to simulate dead celebrities for commercial use. Its version of W. C. Fields looks like a stuffed mannequin with a puffy nose, but company founder Jeff Lotman, a former food-company executive, contends that the technology is getting better. ''When I saw Tom Hanks shake hands with John Kennedy in `Forrest Gump,' I thought, `Wow, that's great.' Someone is going to create a photorealistic actor who can do whatever you want, and I wanted to be a part of it.''
The effects in ''Gump'' were created by slicing old footage together, similar to techniques used for commercials that had Fred Astaire dancing with an electric broom and John Wayne shilling beer. Digital technology, however, won't be limited to existing footage. Lotman has already obtained the rights to reproduce such celebrities as Vincent Price, James Cagney, Groucho Marx, Gracie Allen, George Burns, and Sammy Davis Jr. But don't expect to see James Dean resurrected to star in a fourth feature film: His estate turned down Lotman's offer.
Masur of the Screen Actors Guild says he doesn't have any problem with Lotman's venture, since he is obtaining the legal rights from the estates. ''I can't think of a single celebrity whose image has been used with permission who would have the slightest qualm about the fact that their image was benefiting their heirs,'' Masur says. ''It's only immoral if it's stolen.''
But like the scientists whose discoveries wreak havoc in horror films, some digital pioneers are appalled by the application. ''It's another indication of how careful we have to be as human beings not to damn our own futures,'' warns Lewis of Pacific Data Images. ''I hope to God when I'm dead nobody tries to create a digital version of me. Now we're going to have to put in our wills, `I cannot be digitally re-created in any form.' We're just going to make the lawyers rich again.''
Such tinkering is making digital animators question their craft - even as
they race to perfect the technology to make it possible. ''The idea of
dredging profits from the grave is unethical and immoral,'' says Kleiser.
''It becomes spooky. We don't want to besmirch the careers of actors from
the past, even if the descendants of that actor make money by selling off Grandpop's image. Computer programmers shouldn't be allowed to interfere with their body of work.''
But a film starring a digital Marilyn Monroe or a virtual George Burns will probably be nothing more than a novelty. And no one is predicting that acting coaches will have to retire or that stuntmen will have to pursue careers in the World Wrestling Federation. Until a computer figures out how to exude charisma, actors will get work. ''I don't think if anyone had the choice between Harrison Ford and a digital actor that they'd opt to create it themselves - unless they wanted his nostrils pulled over his eyelids,'' Lewis says.
But back in the computer laboratories, some technical wizards are wondering just what it is they are creating. The real test of a digital actor will come when it can realistically perform a monologue in close-up. ''We can do skin texture; we can pretty much do hair,'' Kleiser says. ''We're better at the subtlety of motion of a human face. But I'm talking about a close-up, someone's face talking that looks realistic. I don't think we're there yet, and I'm not even sure it's worth it.''
Even as the questions emerge, Universal Pictures is working on a
hush-hush project that reportedly will break major ground on creating a
photorealistic digital actor. The film isn't due out for two or three
years; some industry sources think it's about to be canceled. Form will
reflect content in this tale: It's a digital remake of a film called
This story ran on page N01 of the Boston Globe on 05/23/99. © Copyright 1999 Globe Newspaper Company.