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movies tech

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

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?  ↩
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movies Uncategorized

Philip Seymour Hoffman, mid-production tragedy, and virtual actors

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?  ↩

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movies Uncategorized

Salvaging Star Wars, Episode IV: Leaner green screen

The last few posts have addressed a single question: how might the Star Wars prequels have been salvaged? How might George Lucas have kept that trainwreck on the rails? In the first post, I questioned the whole “prequel” concept. Then, I discussed how real-world analogues polluted the Star Wars universe. Finally, I suggested some ways that the prequels might have better explored the characters of Anakin and Obi-Wan.

Today’s post addresses the most obvious, glaring problem with the trilogy. To fix the prequels, you’d have to scale back the use of green screen.

“Green screen”—or chroma keying—has become an indispensable tool in the arsenal of modern filmmakers. It allows directors to compose shots that—just a few years ago—wouldn’t have been possible. Whole worlds can be invented, and the creator’s imagination faces nearly no limits.

Ironically, it is the lack of limits that makes green screen a problem for many directions. Creators need ceilings against which to bump their heads; they need obstacles to invent themselves around. Creativity means subverting the limitations of your chosen medium. A New Hope blew our minds because Lucas used models to make us believe in spaceships and laser beams. But without practical obstacles to overcome, Lucas leans too far out into the imaginary, making the action unrelatable and alien.

Overusing green screen and CGI poses problems for actors, as well. Actors need the context that green screening removes.

Why? After all, good actors don’t need a set to deliver a stirring performance. Thespians have dominated empty stages for millenia. Instead, it’s a problem of physics and improvisation. “Physics,” because an actors can’t really fake the subtle way that feet slide differently over carpet than over painted plywood. “Improvisation,” because green screen tends to remove the props and set-pieces that invite impromptu, grounding interactions. When asked to act to an empty room, actors tend to stand around. That’s pretty much all we get from Episodes II and III.

It’s a shame; Lucas hired great actors for his prequel trilogy: Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid. If any cast could have convinced us that the world was real, it was this one. They couldn’t (no one could). Lucas wasted his fantastic actors by filming them in a sterile, green-walled prison.

This combination—static actors on a fantastically animated background—unnerves the audience. They don’t know why, but things feel unreal. They know, instinctively, that nothing’s really at stake. Such disbelief only further undermines the prequels’ subpar characters, dialogue, and plot. Conversely, while real sets and on-location shooting wouldn’t have single-handedly redeemed the prequels, it couldn’t have hurt.


That wraps up the “Salvaging Star Wars” series. What more is there to say? Lucas wasted his fans’ good will and irreparably damaged the greatest franchise in cinematic history. No thought experiment can change that. But maybe, just maybe, future filmmakers can ask themselves the same questions and thus avoid making the same mistakes on the upcoming Star Wars sequels.

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movies Uncategorized

CGI, the unhuman, and the future of cinema

Some filmmakers think they’ll find the answer in CGI or 3D, but the very beating heart of cinema rests in the people we see on that screen.

—Francis Ford Coppola.[1]

Cinema does for us what campfire did for our ancestors. We sit in the dark, gathered around a flickering light, and tell each other stories.

And stories (whether silhouetted by fire or projected onto the silver screen) only work when we can identify with them. When the characters are people like us. When we can read ourselves into the plot. When the set locations remind us of somewhere we’ve been. That’s why film lovers are not escapists. We are realists. We want movies that expose the drama of our everyday lives. We want to see our lives, writ large.

image

We were built for storytelling. Photo courtesy of renu parkhi.

That’s why Lord of the Rings resonate so strongly, and the Star Wars prequels fall flat. Peter Jackson shot actual sets, real miniatures, and physical effects whenever possible. The world, though fantastical, feels real. Conversely, George Lucas eschewed physical sets. He filmed his actors on green screen, pasting them into entirely illusory environments later. If he could’ve gotten away with it, he might have have erased the actors themselves. As a result, the Star Wars prequels are astoundingly alien; they are ‘escapist’ fantasy, in the worst sense. They are unstories, populated by unpeople–wooden facsimiles hovering over papercraft sets.

Coppola is right. CG can’t compete with flesh-and-blood drama.

At least… not yet. Film technology continues to push past boundaries. Could Avatar mark a turning point–from digital counterfeits to lifelike imitations? Eventually, CG faces will no longer resemble reanimated corpses. Digitally-programmed voices will master the subtleties and timbre of human speech. When software can calculate (and conjure) convincing performances, will human actors lose their jobs? Will directors opt for digitized replicants over living primadonnas, with their fat contracts and luxury trailers and fragile egos?[2]


  1. Purported. The @FrancisFCoppola Twitter account has since been taken down.  ↩

  2. Then again, if you can replace the actors, why not the director (and everyone else), too? Couldn’t we perfect algorithms for writing scripts, choosing camera angles, or splicing together shots? Why bother with people at all?  ↩