Philip Seymour Hoffman, Mid-Production Tragedy, and Virtual Actors

movies / tech

Hollywood was rocked on Sunday by the untimely death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, one of its finest actors.

Hoffman had not yet finished his work on the final Hunger Games sequel, in which he plays mentor to Jennifer Lawrence’s Katniss Everdeen. The actor had one week of shooting left on the marquee project.

It feels crass to ask how filmmakers will handle Hoffman’s absence. But one supporting actor’s death can’t derail a project whose budget surpasses a hundred million dollars. That difficult question must be asked and answered.

So how will they work around the actor’s death? A studio spokesperson indicated that the unfilmed “key scene” will be reconfigured to accommodate the missing Hoffman.

Regardless of how things play out for Mockingjay, this situation seems like a Hollywood executive’s worst nightmare. It proves just how risky it can be to rely on actors. The Hollywood Reporter chatted with Rob Legato, a visual effects guru, about how that risk might be mitigated in the future:

Insurance companies may require actors in big films to be scanned and have a range of facial expressions recorded in advance “in case something like this does happen – and it seems to have happened quite a bit lately.”

Actors might also record vocal demo reels, from which their speaking voices could be recreated.

An obvious next question: if you can recreate convincing performances digitally, why hire actors at all? You’re already hand-crafting the set, the props, the stunts, and the visual effects via CGI. Why not the actors, too?

A CGI cast offers obvious practical advantages. After all, digital actors don’t get paid scale, won’t demand a luxury trailer, and never collapse in narcissistic tantrums. Digital actors can interact more convincingly with digital environments than can their flesh-and-blood counterparts. And, again, digital actors don’t unexpectedly die.

As technology stands, this suggestion sounds preposterous. Too many CGI characters have fallen short of believability.

But it’s just another in a long string of technical challenges, and technical challenges eventually get overcome. Graphic artists can already create convincing performances by referencing a motion-captured actor. Soon, they’ll learn to create similarly convincing characters—entirely from scratch.

Later, this process will be automated and packaged as “actor software.” Algorithms will replicate even the subtlest of emotions. Directors will give computers the same instructions they currently give actors: “Less on-the-nose… More theatrical… Give me a pause there.”[1] Filmmaking will be something that happens in a computer lab, not a sound stage.

Of course, the Screen Actors Guild may have a thing or two to say about it.

UPDATE: Has the age of the “digital actor” already arrived? On February 6, the NY Post reported that filmmakers will use CGI to recreate Hoffman for a key scene in the final Hunger Games sequel.


  1. Can you tell I have no idea what a director does?  ↩