- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 25, 2005

Marlon Brando is about to stage a career comeback, courtesy of the computer. Bryan Singer, the director of next year’s “Superman Returns,” tells USA Today that Mr. Brando’s Jor-El character from the 1978 “Superman” feature will appear in “Returns” via archival footage augmented by computer technology.

Computer-generated imagery has now progressed almost to the point where studios could introduce “actors” digitally created from the ground up into their movies.

Once that comes to fruition, what’s to stop a studio from digitally resurrecting, say, Marilyn Monroe from the grave and inserting her into a new film?

Ed Ulbrich, senior vice president of productions and executive producer with Digital Domain, says the dawn of this technology is upon us.

Mr. Ulbrich’s California-based special effects firm, created by Oscar-winning director James Cameron in 1993, is working on what he calls the “holy grail” of special effects — a digitally authentic human character.

“We’re on the cusp of it,” Mr. Ulbrich says, adding that special effects wizards have already begun applying the technology. Audiences simply haven’t realized it.

Anytime a star such as Tom Cruise performs a death-defying stunt, it’s likely that a CGI Cruise is incorporated somewhere along the way, he says.

“The next step, and we’re very close, is the ability to have a digital actor carry a scene, a tender moment of dialogue, a compelling performance to make you laugh or cry,” he says.

Mr. Ulbrich doubts that once that happens, there will be a mad dash to resurrect fallen stars.

“It’s still probably a staggeringly expensive proposition,” he says.

Besides, he isn’t sure today’s moviegoers are clamoring to relive the past.

“We know how fickle audiences are and the staying power of certain stars,” he says. “I don’t think Marilyn Monroe has an audience that would justify the big costs in creating a digital likeness of her.”

Ed Baxter, a producer with Washington Picture Works, says such films as “Final Fantasy” and “The Polar Express” showed film studios inching toward computer-simulated humans. That doesn’t mean the effects teams will have an easy time of it.

“There are little nuances of acting that are so hard to program in,” he says, like expressing internal conflict. “There’s so much expression in the eyes alone. How do you program that?”

But in an era when top stars demand $20 million per picture, studios might see strong incentives in selective digital casting.

“Indiana Jones was based heavily on Rick from ‘Casablanca’,” notes Mr. Baxter. “If you do something like that in the future, do you actually bring back [Humphrey] Bogart to replace [Harrison Ford]?”

George Washington University law professor Roger Schechter says the current legal environment for digital re-creations is uncertain, at best. “There’s been some effort to pass a federal statute, but Congress has been preoccupied with the copyright field” involving the Internet, he says.

A key unanswered question is how long it takes for a dead star’s legal protections to expire.

“There’s a pretty broad consensus it should last for some period after the death, but they can’t agree on how long,” Mr. Schechter says, adding that some states fall back on life plus 50 years, while others claim these rights expire a decade after someone’s death.

Under current guidelines, a studio would have to abide by the strictest state ruling if it wants nationwide distribution of a film featuring digital dopplegangers.

Bela G. Lugosi has been fighting to protect the sanctity of his father’s likeness since the 1960s.

Mr. Lugosi, an L.A.-based lawyer and son of horror movie icon Bela Lugosi, began the battle after seeing everything from puzzles to swizzle sticks emblazoned with his father’s face in Dracula makeup.

Mr. Lugosi, who retains approval rights over his father’s estate, says he has watched the rules governing the protection of late stars’ images fluctuate over time.

He expects the legal environment to remain murky until demand forces a unifying decision.

He plans to keep fighting on his father’s behalf no matter the technology.

“I want to preserve the image,” he says of his father. “He really is an icon. It’s the future generations of the family who need that protected.”

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