Digital Necromancy: The Art of Reviving the Dead

In a swift motion, Rey pulls out her lightsaber and destroys the drone she’s fighting. She runs towards the Resistance base and a woman waits for her. The screen pans to her face- it’s none other than everyone’s beloved general, Leia Organa.

The Rise of Skywalker, the latest production of Star Wars franchise came out in December 2019. Filmed through 2018 and 2019, the wildly popular series’ conclusion starred Carrie Fisher, even though she died in 2016.

Coined in an article in The Guardian, digital necromancy is the posthumous resurrection of digital images of celebrities and actors. Through the use of computer generated imagery (CGI), footage of deceased celebrities can be stitched together to form a motion display and be brought to life on the screen.

Afterlife controversy

Digital necromancy, while an ode to the term movie magic, has aroused mixed reactions from the audience- and rightfully so. 

In November of 2019, production company Magic City Films announced James Dean as the secondary lead role in their Vietnam War Drama, as they just could not find any other suitable candidate for the job. 

“We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, which has some extreme complex character arcs, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean.”
-Anton Ernst, Director

Following this announcement the company received rigorous backlash from several fans and observers. The audience received this as absurd and an obvious move to garner publicity. Sixty-five years after the cultural icon’s death, his presence is being reduced to media manipulation, instead of being treated like an actual human who lived and died a successful man. This unusual casting also faced criticism from well known personalities such as Chris Evans, Elijah Wood and Dylan Spouse, all of whom addressed it as disrespectful.

Another notable example of this being practised as a money-making tactic is the 60-second reanimation of Audrey Hepburn in an advertisement for Galaxy chocolate.

While the global film community has condemned most these actions, in some cases it has been a boon to the storytelling process. In instances of previously existing roles, digital necromancy has helped a lot in terms of continuation. Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, was revived digitally for his role in 2016 Rogue One: Star Wars, similar to the situation with Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker.

This blatant misuse of the digital archives of someone who existed years ago can be seen as an attempt to make a quick buck whilst completely ignoring and disrespecting the wishes of the deceased artist’s family and friends. Their legacy is rendered meaningless and becomes a tool in the hands of cynical and money-minded businessmen. For instance, in 2013, legendary icon Bruce Lee was resurrected for a Johnnie Walker advertisement despite the fact that the martial artist and actor did not consume alcohol throughout his life.

Digital resurrection and it’s growing numbers

The catalogue of resurrected dead stars keeps growing and growing. Rapper Tupac digitally ‘performed’ at the 2012 Coachella, and pop icon, Michael Jackson, at the Billboard Awards in 2014.

Another entertainment company, BASE Entertainment had announced a tour of the deceased Amy Winehouse, but had to put the project on hold due to certain “challenges and sensitivities”. 

There were, however, some celebrities such as Robin Williams who saw the possible future of digital resurrection. The Dead Poets Society star signed a deed preventing his image from being used posthumously for the next 25 years.

The company behind bringing James Dean to life on the big screen, Worldwide XR, is not done creating digital recreations of celebrities. The media house, which aims to use augmented reality to bring traditional media to life, owns the rights to over 400 deceased celebrities such as Bert Reynolds, Bettie Page, Neil Armstrong and many more. These celebrities however never got a say in how their image can be used.

“Influencers will come and go, but legends will never die”
-Travis Cloyd, Worldwide XR CEO

Digital necromancy is also cost-effective. Surprisingly, it costs lesser to add CGI people than have actual celebrities in your film. For example, David Beckham was paid 30 million pounds for endorsing Gillette. On the other hand, a one-year license to the image of James Dean costs a measly 15 thousand dollars.

All of this discourse has led to the moral dilemma of what exactly is a lifespan. If someone can be brought to life using nothing but digital archives of themselves, where exactly do we draw the line seperating humanity and technology? How far is the film and television industry ready to go in their exploitation of the deceased, all for a heavy paycheck?

Written by Tanya Jain for MTTN

Graphics by Sara Dharmik

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