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Star Wars vs. The Uncanny Valley

Visual effects artists now wield an incredibly powerful tool: the ability to recreate the likeness of an actor with such accuracy that a CGI replacement can perform a real supporting role. But is the controversial result worthwhile, or just creepy?

If you’ve read reviews of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, then you know one of the most common criticisms about the film. Just in case you still haven’t seen the movie, I won’t spoil precisely what that criticism is. But let’s just say that Rogue One made a bold decision in regards to its visual effects — the kind of decision that could forever alter a studio’s approach to franchise cinema.

— SPOILERS FOLLOW —

As you might have guessed, I’m talking about how Rogue One brought back Governor Wilhuff Tarkin, last seen in 1977’s Star Wars (Episode IV). English actor and Hammer Horror veteran, Peter Cushing played the role but he passed away in 1994. So, instead of recasting the role with a new face or creating a new character to act as a Tarkin analogue, Lucasfilm cast English actor Guy Henry (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows) to play the role. ILM then used Henry’s performance as the basis for a digital Tarkin, completely recreating Peter Cushing’s signature appearance.

Tarkin, Leia, and Darth Vader aboard the Death Star.

This raised more than just criticism — it raised ethical questions. How do you credit or compensate a deceased actor who appears in your film, but whose image is entirely digital? Disney maintains that everything was above board, and we no have reason to suspect that’s untrue. When Vulture asked Disney to comment on the use of Cushing’s appearance, Disney responded by clarifying how they credited him. (“With Special Acknowledgment to Peter Cushing, OBE” and “Special Thanks to The Estate of Peter Cushing, OBE,” if you were wondering.)

But even if Disney and Lucasfilm had the permission and ability to bring a fan favorite back from the dead, does that still make it right? As mentioned earlier, this is a powerful tool. With it, it’s easy to veer off the edge into poor taste. Can we trust filmmakers and studio executives to wield it tastefully? Rogue One makes a solid argument that, yes, perhaps they can. Many fans, like me, already knew going in that they would see a digital Peter Cushing in the film. But after wading through the pixel swamp of Episodes II and III, fans are right to be wary of digital effects in Star Wars. The wrong effect can sour an experience. I don’t like to admit it, but I think we all know that some movies never recover after a bad CG effect.

The Unavoidable Uncanny Valley

And to the credit of the film and everyone involved, the animation that brings Governor Tarkin to life is insanely impressive. It’s beautiful work. Drinks are on me, Industrial Light & Magic. There’s just one thing: It’s creepy. A conventional technique of animation and puppetry is to “keep it alive” through subtle movement. As a result, Tarkin looks animated, but not alive. And no matter how much attention the artists paid to how Tarkin’s lips and cheeks subtly puff out when he talks, I couldn’t shake a weird feeling. I felt that the sound I was hearing was not coming out of the thing on screen. It was at once remarkable and uncanny.

In this age of humanoid robots and digital actors, you’ve probably heard of the Uncanny Valley. The Uncanny Valley is the hypothesis that an imitation of a human gets creepier the more lifelike it becomes. The dip in the graph below is that hypothetical valley: the range where human replicas are particularly unsettling to look at.

Uncanny-valley graph

In 2010’s TRON: Legacy, Jeff Bridges played a dual role as Kevin Flynn and his digital döppelganger, CLU. In the film, CLU has become a totalitarian villain in an attempt to maintain perfection in Flynn’s digital realm. There’s just one big issue with CLU: he’s a digital recreation of Jeff Bridges at a much younger age. The effect isn’t the kind of age-defying cosmetic CGI we saw in Marvel’s Ant-Man. Instead, CLU has a fully digital head, with facial animations based on performance capture from Bridges.

Disney turned back time for Jeff Bridges.

We’ve had entirely digital stunt performers in cinema since the dawn of the millennium. Once immediately noticeable, in this era of action blockbusters, digital stunt doubles are now almost a default. We barely notice today’s digital stunt doubles, and it’s not just because we have gotten used to them, they have also gotten better. However, the human brain is so wired to analyze the human face that digital acting poses a much greater challenge than digital stunts.

Because of that challenge, TRON: Legacy cuts around CLU in a timid way. The film is afraid to linger on his close-ups or let him deliver the subtleties that make a human performance. That fear is understandable, because when the effect is in motion, it never approaches real. It’s just too smooth, too perfect to exist. One of the go-to criticisms of bad CG is that it looks like a video game cutscene. That’s the case with CLU. But I’ll be damned if that doesn’t fit the story on aesthetic and thematic levels. In that way, CLU kind of works (in a similar way to how TRON: Legacy “kind of” works). It’s not a stunning effect, but its digital weirdness is appropriate for the story. That, I think, constitutes responsible use.

Ready For That Close-Up

Now, just six short years after TRON: Legacy, the art and science of creating digital doubles has progressed so much that a digital human replacement can deliver a real performance in close-up. In Rogue One, digital Tarkin may not have much screen time, but he is not camera-shy. The movie lets him deliver chunks of dialogue in close-up. That may not seem like much, but no other film in history has achieved this like Rogue One has. How do I know that? Because Lucasfilm’s gamble is paying off. I know people (adults who weren’t savvy enough to know or remember who Tarkin was) who saw the film and had no clue ILM had digitally replicated the late Peter Cushing. (Young Leia was more obviously digital because even non-fans recognize the iconic princess.) But even if the effects were good, did the filmmakers use them responsibly?

We can’t be sure yet. The ripples of these decisions will spread over time, and I guarantee that there will  be films that use powerful effects in poor taste. And anyone who lived through the Star Wars prequels will know what poor taste in digital effects looks like.

The Definitive ‘Star Wars’ Timeline of the Rebel Alliance


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