Can we bring the old screen legends back from the dead to co-star in movies with today's stars? If a Californian company called Virtual Celebrity Productions (www.virtualceleb.com) has it's way, that's exactly what we'll be seeing in the near future.
Co-founders Jeffery Lotman and Steve Tice use reconstructive 3-D modelling based on the life-casts of once great stars like Jimmy Cagney, Vincent Price and Marlene Dietrich. They combine this with performance animation linked to the body movements of a live actor, and a voice artist who specialises in copying the style and delivery of the deceased actor. The result is an uncannily life-like representation. With a little more development, it'll be extremely difficult to tell who is the real actor in a movie, and who is the virtual remake.
Similar digital technology has been used in movies like "Titanic" to create thousands of virtual extras to fill the deck of the doomed mega-liner.
"There are two types of performers, one is created live, in realtime - a digital performer," says Virtual Celebrity's Steve Tice. "The second one uses a technology that creates the actors offline. This latter process allows a more convincing, highly photo-realistic rendering for film, commercial and other digital mediums. We pay special attention to the subtle perceptual cues that audiences may detect in creating a digital human. With the integration of all the technologies and creative acting skills at our disposal, we believe we're very close to a recapturing the soul of dead personalities".
Casting a movie will never be the same again. The possibilities are limitless - Tom Hanks fighting alongside John Wayne to save Private Ryan, or falling in love by e-mail with Marilyn Monroe. Think of the billboards: "Tarantino directs Vincent Price and Johnny Depp in 'Pulp Fiction 2'."
Of course, acting agents have their own views on digital re-creations, and predictably, they're not favourable: "I think it's creepy. It's totally unnecessary," says Moonyeen Lee of MLA, one of the largest artist management companies in Johannesburg, South Africa. "Every day we get told the world is over-populated and now they want to bring back the dead? It's wrong. And what about new talent? If we can bring back the old legends, or if Brad Pitt's already booked on another shoot, what the hell, let's use a virtual clone - so why should new talent bother to go learn the craft?"
"I hate the idea completely," says Johannesburg actress Jocelyn Broderick. "I don't think I would like anyone to decide how to portray me, or use an image of me that I haven't agreed to. I don't like it at all. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe have become legends because they did so few movies, and because they died in their prime."
That unattainability, that unique, elusive spark that made these names the cult icons they've become today - could technology really recreate that? Do muses dwell in the spirits of machines?
One local actor who wasn't instantly turned off by the idea was Sean Taylor: "Great actors like Humphrey Bogart are idolized forever because of the films they made, but just imagine if they could stamp their unique talent on new movies. They would become ongoing, "living" contributors to the history of film. Of course, in my case, in my nudity clauses, I could say, 'OK, you can use my face, but I want Brad Pitt's body'."
What about the rights to use these deceased legends' likenesses? How do you secure them? Who do you pay if you 'cast' them? "A dead personality's rights would fall under the interest of two kinds of people," says attorney Neil Kirby. "First, you need to look at the rights of the producer, in terms of the dead personality's appearances in films that he might have produced, where the Producer stands to earn money from releasing a film featuring the dead star. Secondly, you have to consider the rights of that personality's estate to earn an income from the casting of that personality in a movie. More often than not, such an estate does exist, and has control over the appearances that the personality made while he or she was alive."
But then the question arises - do the executors of the estate now have the right to claim a revenue from a digital double? Can "it" be considered a legal person? Does "it" have rights? Can "it" earn a salary? Or is "it" merely an artist's creation?
Where does the person stop and the brand start? Because, in essence, that's what the quarrels will be over - a brand. A star becomes a star because his name becomes a brand. So really it's about who has the bequeathed right to earn an income from the brand. This could lead to major stars copyrighting their names, and tying up the rights as tightly as a Coca-Cola or a Nike.
But these are academic questions, because, in the meantime, Virtual Celebrity Productions is steamrollering ahead with its plans to cast yesteryear's megastars in some new Hollywood features. The company plans to have its first dead celebs ready for big screen auditions later this year.