Are Actors Becoming Obsolete?

Imagine this. You go to your local movie theater to see the latest Sam Spade flick. It stars Humphrey Bogart, Audrey Hepburn, Joseph Cotton, Peter Lorre, and the young Orson Welles. It’s in full color, acclaimed as a tour-de-force of the acting talents of all these great stars. 

There’s just one minor detail: the movie was made this year.

Using computer technology, the movie studios could soon be generating motion pictures that require nothing more than a licensing agreement with the celebrity estates and a platoon of programmers. No actors need apply.

For twenty years, CGI has been slowly but surely increasing its influence in filmmaking. We’ve come a long way since Tron. At first there were computer characters amusing only for their novelty (like Max Headroom). Then Jurassic Park brought us totally realistic dinosaurs (never mind that nobody really knows what totally realistic dinosaurs actually look like). Special effects gurus were also able to digitally paste the face of actress Ariana Richards onto a stunt double to provide a frighteningly realistic action sequence. And, finally, we had Jar Jar Binks. Love him or hate him, old Jar Jar still needed a human stand-in to provide his voice and body movements. But maybe not for long.

On television today you can watch Roughnecks (an almost completely overlooked animated spin-off of the Starship Troopers movie), which presents 100% CGI-generated human characters. They’re still pretty stilted, but believable enough for an animated show; nonetheless, it really shows how far the technology has come in just a few years.

So far, the special effects guys have been hampered by the fact that we (human beings) require a very complex set of visual inputs in order to “believe” that an image we’re seeing is human. Painters can fool us. Sculptors can, too. But so far, motion picture CGI hasn’t been able to get past anything that looks much better a department store mannequin. It’s really just a matter of time, computer programming methods, processor speed, and memory to make it happen. Before long (and I’m thinking perhaps ten years) the technology will be available to render completely realistic human characters – down to their hair, body movements, wrinkled clothes, voices – everything. Then it’s look out, Leonardo DiCaprio! We don’t need you anymore.

Pay a hefty fee to the estate of Humphrey Bogart (and certainly way less than the $25 million per picture Harrison Ford wants) and Bogey can star in any movie you want. And his acting would be worthy of an Oscar (or at least competent enough for today’s easily-entertained masses). 

But you don’t have to stick with recognizable faces. Hire some consultants and you could create a CGI Jezebel that would have twenty-something men leaving their girlfriends at home to see the latest Jezebel flick. And Jezebel’s male counterpart would have the ladies melting in their seats.

Of course, science fiction has dealt with this stuff before. Connie Willis’s Remake and William Gibson’s Idorucome to mind.

Actors and actresses don’t have to worrying about being obsolete right away. Even if CGI does become a viable option, it would take a heck of a lot to completely do away with live humans in every single movie. But who knows? Perhaps seeing a movie with real people will become as quaint as attending live community theatre is today.

For us (the movie-going public), there’s good news and bad news. The good news is that the studios will have yet another tool to bring us even more impressive films. The bad news is that we’ll have to sit through an even more realistic Jar Jar Binks. 

[Originally posted in June 2000 at]

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