Will more dead actors be coming to a theater near you?

Peter Krapp, University of California, Irvine

On November 30 2013, actor Paul Walker died in a car crash before filming of Furious 7 was complete. The accident meant the franchise’s filmmakers had to resort to workarounds to finish scenes featuring Walker. This was made possible by combining footage from outtakes with the construction of a “digital mask” of the dead actor’s features, which was projected onto motion captured by Paul Walker’s brothers Cody and Caleb, who have similar builds.

Casting actors after they’ve died is nothing new, and neither is the use of many digital tools in film making. The real question is how the acting profession and the audience will react if this practice were to become more commonplace.

From editing to animation

Three techniques are currently used to “re-cast” actors after they’ve passed away. The simplest is the juxtaposition of older and newer footage. Outtakes of Larry Hagman’s performance as JR Ewing from the TV soap opera Dallas (1978-1991, 2010-2014) allowed him to appear in episodes not actually filmed until after his death. However in the case of The Sopranos (1999-2007), the same trick lacked emotional depth. Livia Soprano was played by actress Nancy Marchand, who died in 2000, and HBO ultimately decided to give her character an off-screen death.

A second approach, rotoscoping, allows clever montages using footage from different eras, showing living and dead performers together in the same shot. Notable examples include Bruce Lee in a recent Johnny Walker whisky ad, or Natalie Cole’s Grammy-winning duet with her late father Nat King Cole. A famous Coca Cola ad from the same year featured Elton John and put the deceased Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney and Louis Armstrong in his audience.

Rotoscoping was used to ‘resurrect’ Bruce Lee in this 2013 Johnnie Walker advertisement.

The third and most complex technique involves the computer recreation of someone’s likeness (facial expressions, skin textures and hair modeling) to create synthetic actors. One landmark of this technological feat was The Lord of the Rings’ Gollum (2001-2003). Computer graphics fleshed out the character as played by actor Andy Serkis, who wore a motion capture body suit.

Oliver Reed died of a heart attack before finishing his role in Gladiator (2000), but computer graphics allowed his image to be recreated. The same is being done with Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, set to be released later this year.

Actor Andy Serkis wore a motion capture body suit to create the character Gollum.

Innovations in computer graphics key

The high-tech reconstruction of Paul Walker for his uncompleted scenes in Furious 7 is a remarkable feat. But it hardly comes as a surprise given the development of computer graphics, from the early line graphics of the 1960s to the two-dimensional surfaces with simple lighting effects that give the illusion of 3D in the 70s and 80s (1982’s Tron is one of the earliest efforts to create a feature length film on a computer).

Other milestones include the wireframe spaceships in Star Wars (1977-1983) and the particle rendering that has propelled Pixar to success since Toy Story (1995). But just as important is the demand for immersive graphics in computer gaming, which has driven innovation in chip design and animation software.

Over the past 20 years, accelerating cross-fertilization between computer graphics and film and television has taken place – from the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park (1994) and the video game Doom (1994), to movies like Wall-E (2008) and the video game Mass Effect 3 (2012).

Simply put, without the rapidly scaling demands of computer games, today’s special effect movies simply wouldn’t be possible.

What are the implications for dead actors?

As anyone who watches Furious 7 will notice, it pivots on competition between the old and the new – between a predator drone and a 60s muscle car, between an omniscient surveillance chip and urban street savvy. The film, which can be seen as a sentimental tribute to Paul Walker, is poignant also in its juxtaposition of new and old questions about what audiences expect from film stars.

Whose body and whose face is it there on the screen? Who holds the rights to these images, to these performances? Tom Cruise was recorded performing in a motion capture suit for the movie Oblivion (2013), but after it opened in theaters, Cruise acquired the rights to all data recorded during his performance. It’s unknown whether he did this to enable future use or to prevent future use, but less established actors might not have as much clout in this kind of decision.

And then there is the question of what will prove acceptable to the fan base of an actor (and of a movie franchise). To what extent are the re-animators of Paul Walker bound by public perception of the actor? And to what extent are they constrained by available technology? Will other filmmakers resort to casting from the beyond, and how will audiences react?

Ultimately, the technical and emotional range of what can be done with someone’s posthumous digital recreation will be defined – and limited – by our living memory of the actor’s onscreen performances.

The Conversation

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Jay Z’s Tidal may be a revolution – for the rich recording artists

James Allen-Robertson, University of Essex

Artists including Beyonce, Daft Punk, Usher, Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, Kanye West and Madonna recently joined Jay Z in New York to launch Tidal, his artist-owned streaming service.

Their two targets, poor audio fidelity and a loss of artist control, indicate a dissatisfaction with the way that consumers are treating music. The Tidal revolution hopes to convince consumers that music and creativity can be better in the age of digital streaming. Yet within a day of the announcement there has already been significant backlash.

The internet is awash with scepticism of Tidal’s revolutionary claims. Though judgement should be reserved for a year or two, first impressions don’t look good. For many music fans, Tidal presents an elitist call to reverse the more democratic music revolution of the early 2000s.

Whilst Tidal’s website places focus on music fidelity, its publicity has veered more towards a story of revolutionary social justice for the arts. Tidal is framed as streaming service owned by artists. Their videos subtly rail against the use of their music as something to encourage advertising revenue or the sale of a new gadget. This publicity implies that consumers are getting music wrong. They’re listening at too low a quality, they’re paying too low a price and they’re consuming in spaces owned by the wrong people. As a result the “sanctity” of music has been lost and creativity is under threat.

Holy melody

Admittedly, the sanctity of music has taken a beating over the past two decades. The explosion of music piracy in the late 1990s lead to the dismantling of the album retail model with iTunes, and the development of music as a service via Spotify. What was lost was the framing of music as a high-value commodity object. Many blame these industry outsiders, Spotify in particular, for the financial and cultural devaluing of music, where artists are paid a per-stream pittance while album sales are cannibalised.

Tidal’s aim is to wrest back artists’ control over music from the current streaming model, reclaiming lost industry territory.

Which sounds good. But Tidal is built around a centre of 16 “top-tier” artists – those present at the launch – who receive the highest proportion of royalties. And for many commentators, this makes Tidal a very suspect kind of artists’ commune. Their new way of consuming music may have the desired old-world values but it looks like it has old business interests too. Less like a grass-roots movement – and more a revolution of the rich.

So far Tidal’s only concrete commitment to its “artists-first” philosophy is the top-tier’s stake in the company. This is a commune shaped around the creativity of its members. Details on how “lower-tier” artists will also share in Tidal’s wealth and influence haven’t been made public. For many, the current model indicates that industry status is likely a key factor. All this talk of “tiers” also seems to mean the commune will be hierarchical.

Was piracy positive?

The digital distribution of music via the internet fundamentally altered the music industry. Old models fell away as it was forced to merge with tech companies to survive. Consumers demanded new ways to listen to music outside of industry remit, and the industry was forced to comply.

Yet more importantly, digital distribution meant alternative channels for distribution too. Digital distribution supported a new ecosystem for independent artists to produce, distribute and promote their work without the labels. Artists were handed a degree of control and possibility that would not have existed had the CD remained king.

Paradoxically, for many, piracy in the 2000s represented a pro-artist position. Piracy sought to topple a model that was inherently restrictive and exploitative. Top-tier artists were considered complicit in that restrictive model –and high-profile artists began vocally and legally attacking their fans. Piracy was an encouragement to challenge the necessity of music as commodity and the vast disparity between music superstars and the struggling artist.

Consumers pirated the top hits, complaining about price-fixing and industry fat cats. Alongside, a host of direct artist-to-fan experiments began to lay the groundwork for an alternative, revolutionary music economy. Digital distribution wasn’t just about free music or streaming, it was a fundamental shift in creative power.

Those that Tidal is working against arguably better represent “artist-first values”. Though not a streaming service, Bandcamp embodies the potential of a democratised and participatory cultural industry. The platform offers artists control over their own corner of the site where they can sell their own music and merchandise. Artists control the minimum price, though fans are given the opportunity to over-pay. There is no standing charge or contracts. Artists only pay fees after they’ve begun to make money and anyone can sign up. Revenue from sales goes direct to the artists, with Bandcamp making its 10-15% by occasionally taking the full revenue of a sale to clear an accrued debt.

Sites such as Bandcamp make music that would be unprofitable to a record label, profitable to the artist. They foster creativity of niche genres and experimental forms, and provide artists control rather than loans and contracts. Admittedly artists aren’t offered a stake in the company, but with Bandcamp paying out $100m to artists since 2008, it may not need to.

So if Tidal’s top-tier believe the music industry needs a real revolution, perhaps they should drop their label and join Bandcamp instead.

The Conversation

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Björk at MoMA – the line between art and music is becoming ever more blurred

By Allan Boughey, Edinburgh Napier University

“If I were to say who influenced me most, I would say people like Stockhausen, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Mark Bell,” Björk told Mark Pytlik for his biography of the Icelandic musician. An intriguing, if not altogether surprising, group. It not only name-checks some of the most important musical figures of the past 70 years, but also provides a template with which to understand Björk.

I’m not just talking in musical terms. Björk may be a musician but she has a much broader aesthetic than music – to the extent that an exhibition about her is shortly opening at MoMA. At the heart of such a show is the question of where the boundaries between art and music lie.

Her influences tell us a lot about why and how this is the case with her work. German electronic music pioneer Stockhausen was most active in the 1950s and 60s. He certainly inspired Kraftwerk and Eno to redefine the confines of popular music in the 1970s. Bell, a key figure in the development of techno and house music in the UK in the 1990s, essentially fused Eno’s ambient music with Kraftwerk’s melody-driven synthesised beats.

Björk, Volta, 2007.
Photography by Nick Knight. Image courtesy of Wellhart Ltd & One Little Indian

Stockhausen (indirectly) and Bell (directly, as Björk’s producer from 1997 until his death in late 2014) can be regarded as highly influential in cultivating the Björk soundscape.


But Kraftwerk and Eno have probably had a more diverse, profound and even dynamic impact. Both have long histories of exploring the connections between music and art. They are equally at home in art spaces and galleries as they are in concert halls and recording studios. Music is only one facet of their oeuvre.

Kraftwerk collaborated with artists, Eno creates photography, installations and digital art. They both work with film and video, and have given live performances as living art. This idea of the living artwork seems to be very much at the heart of the MoMA rationale for the Björk exhibition, which it describes as:

A retrospective of the multifaceted work of composer, musician, and singer… To chronicle her career through sound, film, visuals, instruments, objects, and costumes.

Björk, The Face, 1993.
Photo by Glen Luchford

This is not the first time MoMA has recognised the margins of culture inhabited by some musicians. In 2012, there was the exhibition Kraftwerk – Retrospective 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8. There were eight live shows, each featuring the music of a different album. Each performed to sell-out audiences. The same format was used by Tate Modern in London for another eight sell-out performances in February 2013.

Of course, there’s an argument that Kraftwerk has always defied constructs of what constitutes a popular music act or even a rock band; it has always been more of an arts collective. Its members built their own instruments. They never gave press interviews. They refused to be photographed, and used dummies for photoshoot clones. Their stage performances were carefully constructed. They collaborated with artists for album art work (Emil Shult created the iconic cover for Autobahn) and music videos (Rebecca Allen used state-of-the-art facial animation software for the film that accompanied the 1986 single Musique Non-Stop).

The art world finally took notice around the turn of the millennium when Tokyo’s Metropolitan Museum of Photography featured an exhibition on the making of Allen’s film in late 2002. This was what initiated the art world’s exploration of the interface between art and music.

Three artistic poles

Like Kraftwerk, Eno refutes the rock star cliché. The early years with Roxy Music merely established the platform from which he was able to create a variety of work. He can now be considered a composer, sound technician, session musician, musical collaborator, record producer, visual artist, social and cultural commentator.

With Kraftwerk and other electronic musicians such as Tangerine Dream, Vangelis and Jean Michel Jarre, he helped form the musical landscape of the 1980s and beyond. He also began creating photography and art installations in the 1970s and his work has been exhibited widely across the globe.

Roy Ascott has remarked:

Any attempt to locate Brian Eno’s (art) work within an historical framework calls for a triple triangulation, whose trig points in the English tradition would seem to be Turner/Elgar/Blake; in Europe, Matisse/Satie/Bergson, and in the United States, Rothko/La Monte Young/Rorty.

Brian Eno during the presentation of his project 77 Million Paintings.
Javier Cebollada/EPA

This three-pointed allusion embraces artists, musicians and philosophers. At the edge of music you find a border country, as much cultivated by the visual aspect of music making, and the pop star as cultural icon, as it is to the desire to explore multiple creative forms.

From Elvis Presley forward, the performance and marketing of music has always relied on a visual aesthetic. But it is not only the record company or concert promoter, more concerned with the commercial imperative of the product on sale, who has been preoccupied with the packaging of music and musicians. Starting with the Beatles in the mid-1960s, musicians themselves became more interested with image; not just their appearance (on and offstage) but with how their broader persona was presented and what it represented.

David Bowie in 1973.
PA/PA Archive

The trend began with album covers as genuine works of art (Peter Blake’s 1967 collage for the Sgt Pepper’s album) and soon evolved into elaborate stage costumes (Arthur Brown), and ultimately, into exotic alter egos (David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust, whose costumes featured among the exhibits at last year’s V&A retrospective of Bowie’s stage creations).

Some musicians even insisted on fashioning their own album covers, Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell chief among them. Dylan has exhibited his paintings and sculptures in galleries worldwide, including the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Film was also used to cultivate and enhance image: look at the proto-videos for Dylan’s 1965 single Subterranean Homesick Blues or, a decade later, Queen’s global phenomenon Bohemian Rhapsody. Videos themselves were the main drivers of sales throughout the 1980s, initiating the MTV age, before digital technologies enabled a more holistic multimedia approach, particularly in terms of live performance.

Björk seems to embody all of this. The four musicians she mentioned to Pytlik are surely just one aspect of her inspiration and ambition. As the New York show will no doubt prove, with its showcasing of music as well as album covers, videos and costumes, Björk’s work references Bowie’s performance art and Eno’s extending of aesthetics, just as much as German electronic music. What will happen next in these borderlands, we’ll have to see – but it’s an extremely exciting prospect.

The Conversation

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