23 February 2009

CGI Hollywood Actors: A Threat or A Blessing?

With the ever-changing technological revolution upon us, I wanted to take a look this week at a related topic that has been seen as a concerning shadow looming over actors since early 2002. With the expansion and evolution of the electronics available today, film and the movie industry has jumped on the bandwagon by taking advantage of the evolution of various components of production available to them. One such innovation is that of computer generated images, or CGI. While it began as a way to “simulate large crowd scenes in Gladiator and passengers being tossed around the deck of a sinking ocean liner in Titanic,” as the technology became more sophisticated the question began to become more prevalent in people’s minds: Will CGI replace actors in the movies? Until recently, the answer has been an astounding no from all sides, specifically due to what animators like to call the “Uncanny Valley,” which is said to be the “no man’s land where artificial humans look both realistic and unrealistic at the same time, giving them a creepy vibe.” In discussing the 2007 film Beowulf directed by Robert Zemeckis, the New York Times Bits blog suggests that “the last few yards of the journey toward convincing realism are going to be the really hard part... [because] perhaps we have spent so much time looking at out fellow human beings that we can detect a problem with something as subtle as the physics of a muscle contracting.” However, the most convincing reason for CGI actors not taking over Hollywood is money. As L. Vincent Poupard points out, “in most cases, it would be cheaper to hire a cast for a movie…to hire a well-known star, then to pay hundreds of programmers” for a CGI film. However, as I explored the blogosphere, I found that the question still exists today in various forms. Both VeeJay Burns of MindBlizzard blog and Chloe Veltman of lies like the truth discuss not only the availability of the technology, but also how it may affect our way of entertainment life.

"Virtual Actors replace Humans in Hollywood?"

Questioning the preparedness of the public while providing information on the breakthrough in technology is such an interesting way to look at computer generated images and characters in films. Though it could be the next step for the film industry, I feel like the argument for Hollywood to tackle such a challenge still is weak. Yes, as Robert Scoble pointed out in his blog and various videos, the technology is available (see left). But that doesn’t necessarily means it will be used, particularly in the creation of an entire cast worth of actors. Putting monetary amounts for a project such as a complete CGI cast movie aside, I think that one of the biggest upsets Hollywood studios would face by taking this next step into a world of computer generated actors through motion capture technology is the Screen Actors Guild. As an article from Associated Content on the topic of replacing actors with CGI points out, “the Screen Actors Guild is a union… formed to make sure that pressure could be applied to Hollywood if the people working on a movie were to be treated unfairly.” Even if CGI characters in films do begin to replace actors, there is always a body behind the motion capture, which you fail to mention when citing Lord of the Rings as an example of these special effects.

Another upset that I think may become an issue, which you touched on in your afterthought, is the whether or not people will take films seriously as they begin to delve deeper into CGI characters. Though it was simply used as a promotional gimmick within the world of SecondLife, neither the CSI:NY crossover nor the Zwatboek auditions were taken seriously. With the “uncanny valley” theory looming overhead, do you honestly think that Hollywood and movie buffs are ready for the complete digital transformation of the actor and celebrity as we know them?

"Theatre Killed The Video Star"

I was really excited to find someone writing about The Curious Case of Benjamin Button without mentioning its thirteen Oscar nominations. Instead the focus is on the technical aspects of the movie laid out in the NPR article, specifically the motion capture computer generated Brad Pitt as the title character. I had not heard or read the article until coming across your post, however I had seen the movie and I distinctly remembered wondering how exactly the young-old Ben Button (see right) was created. Though I did not let it distract me from the rest of the movie, upon finding your blog, with a link to the NPR article, I was thrilled to finally know how those first 52 minutes of the film were done.

While most people writing about computer generated characters, including the NPR article which inspired your post, look at the effect they may have on the Hollywood acting community, your article takes a different look. Instead of focusing on those directly impacted by a switch to CGI actors, I enjoyed reading your take on what might happen to live performance and theatre if celebrities moved to the stage. Though you’ve already mentioned that currently they have not helped the box office recently, the idea of the live venue being the only performance arena to see one’s favorite actors does inspire awe. Even after disregarding the fame of an actor, you question the aspirations of the up-and-coming artist. Though it would be nice to see theatre as the desired final destination, do you think that perhaps the goal will evolve into being a model for these CGI creations instead? Regardless of how things turn out, it would be intriguing to see the theatre become as popular as films are if Hollywood were to find a way to permanently pass through the “uncanny valley” with their CGI acting creations.


  1. Having already noted the evolution of CGI moving from less important film roles like Gladiator's extras to Benjamin Button's starring role, I feel like CGI's spread throughout the movie industry has to stop somewhere. When discussing whether the possibility of a complete CGI takeover is possible, it is important to consider how completely unnecessary CGI is to many (most) film genres. In a current (oscar nominated) film such as Revolutionary Road, it would be downright inappropriate to involve any CGI whatsoever. I would argue that a complete cast of CGI characters would render a film like Revolutionary Road meaningless. I think this notion is also applicable to almost all movies that fall into the Comedy genre as well. In many movies, a certain level of reality is important for the emotional qualities of the film. With that being said, I dont think that the Screen Actors Guild needs to be worried about CGI taking over the role's of actors any time soon. Another factor that you mention was that of economics. While it may seem quite ridiculous to pay an actor millions of dollars, I think it would be even more ridiculous to pay a group of developers millions of dollars more to create an affect that might not be appropriate. However, when technology evolves even further and the cost of creating a CGI character is cheaper than hiring a real one, then SAG might want to sit down and discuss possible plans of action. Another factor that certainly plays into my belief that CGI will never take over the role's of star actors is that people that watch films want to watch the stars they feel an emotional attachment to. When I go to a movie, I want to see Denzel, I dont want to see an animated version of someone that may look like Denzel. The movie industry is questionably just as much about the movie stars themselves as it is the films. As long as CGI characters cant sign autographs at a movie opening or beat up photographers outside of a nightclub, the Screen Actors Guild doesn't have to worry about a CGI industry takeover.

  2. Thanks for the linkup. I was looking to find out what Chloe said on the topic, but noticed you just pointed to our blogs, and not the related articles.

    For those interested here's the link to the article mentioned in Jessica's article: Virtual Actors replace Humans in Hollywood?


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