Film Fund-amentals: Dawn of the Dead (Celebrity Edition)

Death is not necessarily an end. Sometimes, it’s a career move. It almost worked for Orson Welles. After he died in 1985, various attempts were made to restore some of his movies to his original cut and even complete several films he had left unfinished. For several years, Welles had a surprisingly busy afterlife.

But the real push toward a postmortem career took place last week when Tupac Shakur appeared at the close of the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival. The digital resurrection of Tupac has created an enormous stir, partly because the entire audience (and many critics) were starting to sound like the kid in the movie The Sixth Sense.

The technical achievements of the Tupac stunt are open for debate, especially since the production company Digital Domain does not like to reveal details about the man behind the curtain. One of the better online discussions about the technical aspects can be found at Yahoo! News as they talk with Michael Bove of the MIT Media Lab. As Bove points out, the image wasn’t a true hologram but more of a mix of holography, computer generated imagery and the magician’s old friend Pepper’s Ghost.

It may be all smoke and mirrors, but it has worked well enough that there is now a serious debate about putting “Tupac” on some form of a tour. Heck, for all I know this is how The Rolling Stones have done the last couple of their tours. But what is really interesting about the “Tupac” performance is the way in which they have been able to generate a so-called “new” performance. In the past, the digital insertion of dead stars has been limited either to the content of previously filmed material (for example, the Mustang ad with Steve McQueen) or digital painting with a body double (Peter Cushing’s cameo at the end of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith).

Which brings up some questions as to the plus and minus of doing a movie with just dead people. Sort of the ultimate version of Plan 9 From Outer Space as dead movie stars are presented in “new” performances. The Tupac presentation demonstrates that the technology is basically ready. The only thing stopping it is….

Lawyers. Lots and lots of lawyers. Also the heirs to various estates who have hired the lawyers. The issue as to who owns the right to a dead person’s image is murky. Last year, a federal judge struck down parts of a Washington state law that restricted commercial use of a deceased celebrity image. In California, there is the Celebrities Rights Act, which protects a person’s image for 70 years after their death, as well as a Civil Code known as the Astaire Celebrity Image Protection Act (passed in response to the infamous Dirt Devil commercial). A dozen US states have various laws regarding this issue. The list will continue to grow in sync with the technology.

Most of these laws pertain to the rights of the celebrity’s heirs to retain and control images of the deceased (especially in regards to commercial exploitation). Since part of the reason for using a dead celebrity is to get an iconographic image for a modest price, the ownership issue takes a bite out of the process. Likewise, these laws are primarily focused on the commercial use and manipulation of old images and footage.

Now we have entered a new world where completely new performances can be conjured out of the software system. For example, let’s say you have the money, the technology and the presumed lack of brains, and all you want is to do a porn flick starring Cary Grant. No problem. At least no problem until his heirs sue you off the face of the earth (which I have no doubt they will do and I strongly support their right to do so). Not only will they have the right to go after the producer about the use of Grant’s image, but I also suspect they will have various grounds to go after the filmmaker regarding the “new” performance created for the deceased. Grave robbing is bad enough, but libel can get nasty.

So we may be entering a brave new world of litigation. But it gets even better. We already have a new breed of agents, the kind who handle dead clients just for this purpose. Along with the agents, we will (I assume) have a new form of publicist (who will probably be technically able to get an audio arrangement that would allow for the press to do phone “interviews” — and I have done a few phone interviews where I might as well have been talking to the dead). Heck, business managers for the dead ought to be next.

There are definitely some positive aspects to using the dead. They don’t whine as much as living performers and are a lot less likely to do a Charlie Sheen or Lindsay Lohan stunt (and they will certainly be more even-tempered than Mel Gibson). Many directors will finally feel that they are getting exactly the kind of performances they want out of the cast. The personal demands during the shoot will be a lot easier to manage. Likewise, no one will ever again be bugged by that time-honored question: “What’s my motivation?”

The more I think about it, the more it almost sounds desirable. This may be the truly scary part about the process. In a way, it completely denies the possibility of any fresh, new approaches. Quite literally, it’s a dead-end. But since Hollywood is shamelessly mining the past for everything else, it kind of makes sense.

So I guess the lesson we have learned this week is that there is an afterlife. Kind of. OK, it’s more of a reboot. Now excuse me, I want to get back to work on Bogart’s next film.