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A new film with a dead star? Thanks to CGI and deepfake technology, it’s possible

James Dean 2.0 may be coming to a theater near you

By Stav Dimitropoulos

In September 1955, after starring in Rebel Without a Cause and only two other films, iconic Hollywood actor James Dean died in a car crash at age 24. Now, 65 years later, a fourth Dean film is on the way, featuring a computer-generated image that, in theory, will look like and sound exactly like the long-lost star — an eternal rebel, locked in eternal youth.

That’s the vision pitched by Travis Cloyd, a virtual-reality filmmaker and CEO of immersive media company Worldwide XR. “We will cast James Dean in a secondary role as himself in an upcoming drama,” Cloyd says. “James Dean, ‘digital human,’ will play the James Dean character.”

So far, Cloyd isn’t offering details about the role this version of Dean will play; he says his company will make a public announcement about the new film’s title soon. For now, the company has shelved a previous project announced in 2019, a Vietnam War film called Finding Jack that would have cast the digital Dean in a supporting role.

But the way Cloyd talks, Dean is headed for a comeback. Worldwide XR has partnered with CMG Worldwide, the business agency that has represented Dean’s family for 38 years, as well as more than 1,700 celebrities, athletes, musicians, brands and historical figures, living and dead. Cloyd says the digital human (James Dean 2.0, he calls it) could play multiple characters and roles in traditional 2D cinema, virtual reality, and gaming. And he imagines more stars could follow in Dean’s footsteps.

The digital revival of actors is part of a larger trend in posthumous entertainment. Hologram versions of deceased rock stars, such as Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, have been performing concerts for years, raising questions about the ethics — and the ick factor — of bringing back an artist who is long departed. But Lee Raskin, the author of two books about James Dean, says he’s excited by the news.

Raskin, who was 10 when Dean died, grew enamored as a child with the wild youth idol, and even more so with Dean’s motorcycle and Porsche. Now 75, Raskin thinks new performances by a digitized Dean could answer questions about where Dean’s career could’ve gone that haunt the actor’s fans.

“His very strong fan base will be satisfied, and the younger generation that really doesn’t know much about James Dean will get to know his artistic genius,” Raskin says.

James Dean is not the first actor whom technology has brought back from the dead. But recent advances, including deepfake technology, are making it easier than ever.

“You don’t need to spend capital to market [dead actors]. You bring with them all the history, all the awareness, all the marketing built into their brand.”

Travis Cloyd, virtual-reality filmmaker and CEO of immersive media company Worldwide XR

Carrie Fisher passed away in December 2016, but returned to the living to play Princess Leia Organa in 2019’s Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker, based on a blend of computer-generated imagery with outtakes of Fisher from previous Star Wars films. In 2016, Peter Cushing, dead since 1994, was resurrected to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A 2015 commercial used CGI to show Audrey Hepburn eating dark chocolate in Italy in 2015. Far earlier, Fred Astaire danced with vacuums in commercials during the 1997 Super Bowl. Subtle CGI in a few shots of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 revived Philip Seymour Hoffman in 2014.

And heartthrob Paul Walker’s death in a Porsche accident in 2013 bore an eerie resemblance to that of James Dean, yet he came back to life to complete the Fast & Furious film Furious 7. CGI magicians added his facial features onto the performance of his younger brother Cody for 260 shots of the movie.

Filmmakers have two ways to create digital twins, says Jason Donati, an animator, cinematographer, and professor and interim department chair at Northeastern University’s College of Arts, Media and Design. The first way — which Worldwide XR is pursuing — is to recreate the character fully through CGI. “So you’re creating a 3D-model that looks identical to the actor,” he says. The second approach is to use artificial intelligence, or deepfake technology. Deepfakes are synthetic media powered by a high-tech new deep learning method known as generative adversarial networks; these are machine learning systems that can learn to precisely mimic the set of data you feed them.

“There are deepfake apps right now, where you can choose a famous clip of a movie, take a couple of scans of your face with your phone, and then you get superimposed into the movie in a few minutes,” says Donati. “And it looks unbelievably real.” Deepfake technology is progressing at a furious pace. It’s now sophisticated enough to fool both computers and the human eye, and authorities and tech companies are struggling to keep pace with it.

Donati finds it invigorating that technology can now recreate a living being so convincingly that the audience suspends its disbelief. But the excitement comes with challenges. “Just because you can do it, does it mean you should?” he asks.

In 1993 Steven Spielberg used CGI to create blood-curdling, extinct dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. “This made a ton of sense,” says Donati. But applying these technologies to humans raises artistic and even ethical quandaries, as it means we’d be extending actors’ bodies of work in ways they, being dead, couldn’t control.

“The thing about James Dean or Marilyn Monroe resurrected is that there is no artist’s representation in the movie, so something will always be missing from a CGI or deepfake-based movie,” says Donati. “There’s going to be pushing and pulling of how immersive media is being used in the movies,” he continues. “Some of it is going to be successful, some of it not.”

CGI and deepfakes could also pose a threat to jobs in the cinema industry. In response to coronavirus-induced cancellations and postponements, Donati suggests, some filmmakers could decide to use deepfakes to create new actors out of 20 different faces. Digital actors might even cost less than paying real ones. Such a shift would lead to further displacement of workers, says Donati, much like when the digital effects industry “replaced entire departments of people who used to create pyrotechnics and explosions.”

Cloyd, however, thinks that an explosion of new jobs will balance out those lost. Digital casting would bring new work in 3D facial scanning, new roles for voice actors, and new jobs for body doubles, who’d perform the actual role and movements that the script demands, he says. “A lot of people are needed behind and in front of the cameras, but more importantly, behind the technology,” he says.

And from a marketing standpoint, creating digital twins of some of our culture’s most revered figures, though they have long departed this world, is a financially savvy decision, Cloyd says. “You don’t need to spend capital to market them,” he says. “You bring with them all the history, all the awareness, all the marketing built into their brand.”

Cloyd predicts that reviving dead legends will be common practice in the future. He says WorldwideXR aims to build three-dimensional digital humans that can be used across all media, not just film. He even imagines a world where historical figures are resurrected to appear in documentaries or educational materials. And, as Raskin notes, there is a certain poignancy to resurrecting an actor who died young, to answer the question of what might have been.

“Has there been a bigger ‘what if’ in Hollywood than James Dean, the artistic genius  whose life was cut short at 24?” Raskin wonders.

But Donati warns that we should practice digital immortality in moderation. We cannot expect digital figures to take audiences beyond the film and into their own magical world in the same way talented, living actors or magnetic personalities do. “An artist’s representation and good storytelling will always stay at the heart of a movie,” he says.

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Stav Dimitropoulos is a writer based in Athens, Berlin, and New York.


Illustration by Chris Malbon