The visual effects techniques used in filmmaking are evolving at an astronomical rate – so much so that it’s even possible to “resurrect” deceased actors. Understandably, this has opened up a debate about the ethics involved with using a performer’s likeness once they’ve passed away.
Sure, using digital effects to complete a few missing scenes when an actor meets their maker mid-way through production seems above board – but what about featuring actors in new movies long after they’ve shuffled off this mortal coil? Just where do we draw the line on what is and isn’t acceptable when it comes to using CGI to craft posthumous performances?
It’s a question that’s caused considerable anxiety in Hollywood, with many stars concerned that their likeness will be inserted into films without their permission when they’re gone. That’s why several actors are putting in place legal measures measures to prevent CGI “clones” of them from being created, to ensure this never happens to them.
Of course, in showbiz, you should never say never. At some point in the future, it’s possible that these restrictions will lapse, or that an actor (or more likely, their estate) will change their stance on the whole “posthumous performance” issue. Even so, there are at least a few thespians out there that we’re pretty positive won’t be delivering any lines from beyond the grave, based on what we know about them.
All this being said, here’s a round-up of 14 Actors Resurrected With CGI (And 6 That Can Never Be).
20 Resurrected – Paul Walker
Paul Walker was involved in a fatal car accident, off-set, while principal photography of Furious 7 was going on. A hefty number of scenes featuring his character, Brian O’Conner, were not yet in the can. After careful consideration, director James Wan ultimately decided to use digital effects to craft a fitting on-screen exit for his friend and colleague.
Fortunately, he had support from the late actor’s family, with Walker’s brothers Caleb and Cody – who bear a striking physical resemblance to their sibling – serving as stand-ins on set.
Aside from being a touching gesture, this made Weta Digital’s job less daunting, as the effects artists could focus their efforts solely on recreating Walker’s face with CGI, rather than constructing an entire artificial body.
19 Resurrected – Marlon Brando
Marlon Brando is one of the greatest actors ever, and among his most famous performances is Superman’s father Jor-El in the 1978 movie starring Christopher Reeve.
When Bryan Singer set out to create a quasi-sequel, Superman Returns, he was keen for Brando to reprise the role.
The only problem was that Brando had already passed away!
Singer had a plan. First, the director negotiated with Brando’s estate for permission to use footage filmed of Brando for Superman (and sequel Superman II). Next, he commissioned effects house Rhythm & Hues to digitally recreate the screen icon’s likeness. Relying on these new visuals and existing audio, he managed to cobble together Jor-El’s cameo appearance.
18 Can Never Be Resurrected – Robin Williams
The world was shocked when the news of beloved funnyman Robin Williams taking his own life broke in 2014. Indeed, fans just weren’t ready to say goodbye to the star behind several treasured performances, from the madcap Genie in Aladdin to therapist Sean Maguire in Good Will Hunting.
And yet that’s exactly what those hoping to see Williams on screen again will have to do. Prior to his passing, the actor put in place protections around the use of his likeness . CGI can’t be employed to make him appear in a film, TV show or even as a hologram!
Impressively, the savvy comedian also saw to it that nobody can cash in on his existing body of work until 2039, either.
17 Resurrected – Peter Cushing
2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story sees Peter Cushing once again portray the villainous Grand Moff Tarkin, in a substantial supporting role – surprising, considering he succumbed to prostate cancer back in 1994.
Visual effects powerhouse ILM was behind this feat, combining a spot-on performance by impersonator Guy Henry with a cutting edge CGI recreation of Cushing’s face.
The end result is eerily accurate, if not entirely convincing 100% of the time.
Still, ILM’s near-flawless work re-ignited the debate over the morality underpinning posthumous performances, with several critics effectively accusing director Gareth Edwards of virtual grave-robbing.
16 Resurrected – Audrey Hepburn
Audrey Hepburn epitomizes the romance of, and nostalgia for, a bygone era, so it’s easy to see why her likeness has been relied upon so heavily to market products over the years. That said, until 2013, this meant repurposing existing photos and footage of the actress, who passed away 20 years earlier.
All that changed with Hepburn’s appearance in a commercial for Mars’ Galaxy chocolate bars, which used bleeding edge CGI to bring the style icon back to life to create a brand new scene.
The work by effects house Framestore is undeniably impressive, and for the most part, it really does look like Hepburn took part in filming this Amalfi Coast-based promo.
15 Resurrected – Philip Seymour Hoffman
Modern visual effects can be used to accomplish almost anything – but there are still limits. Need proof? Consider The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2, where director Francis Lawrence was forced to rewrite a key scene featuring Plutarch Heavensbee, as actor Philip Seymour Hoffman suffered a fatal overdose before he could film it.
Lawrence was adamant that a digital recreation of Hoffman would never be able to deliver a performance with the same nuance and skill as the celebrated actor, and immediately abandoned the prospect of using a digital double.
Nevertheless, CGI was still used to superimpose Hoffman into a few shots where Plutarch’s absence could not otherwise be explained away.
14 Can Never Be Resurrected – Jessica Chastain
Jessica Chastain is admired as much for her outspoken views as she is for her considerable acting talents – and her opinions apparently extend to the posthumous performance issue.
In an interview with New York magazine, the actress says she has refused to cooperate when asked to submit to being digitally scanned at least once before.
The rationale behind Chastain’s refusal to take part in the process was motivated by her perception that the scans were unnecessary for the production in question, and could instead be used to create an unauthorized CGI “clone” of her. Chastain seems determined to protect her likeness from being used without her knowledge.
13 Resurrected – Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly & Marlene Dietrich
As you’ve no doubt surmised from the title, this entry constitutes a “triple whammy”: Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly and Marlene Dietrich all popped up in a 2011 advert for Dior’s J’Adore fragrance.
Charlize Theron – the current “face” of the product – is ostensibly the focus of the commercial, but it’s fair to say that it’s the trio of sorely missed screen sirens who steal the show.
The CGI on display here is a bit of a mixed bag.
True, it’s virtually impossible to distinguish between the real-life Kelly and Dietrich and their computerized counterparts. Monroe, however, doesn’t fare so well, with the late actress’s digital doppelgänger falling into the unnerving “uncanny valley” that afflicts so many synthetic performers.
12 Resurrected – Bruce Lee
Perhaps the most influential martial artist of all time, Bruce Lee’s premature passing at the young age of 32 (under mysterious circumstances, no less) has only served to fuel his legend. To this day, the Enter the Dragon star remains a highly marketable figure – although fans occasionally object to Lee’s likeness being used, as Johnnie Walker found out the hard way.
For those of you who don’t already know, Johnnie Walker makes Scotch whisky.
Back in 2013, the company used CGI and repurposed audio to have Lee promote its wares.
What’s so outrageous about this, you might ask? Well, Lee was famously a teetotaller, and would likely never have appeared in an alcohol advert while alive!
11 Resurrected – John Candy
Like Robin Williams, John Candy is a comedy great whom we lost before his time. Only 43 at the time, Candy experienced a fatal heart attack in early 1994, shortly before filming wrapped on his final flick, Wagons East!.
With the film already so close to completion, director Peter Markle drew on every trick available to him – script re-writes, body doubles and rudimentary digital effects – to fill the void left by his leading man.
That said, given the film was a critical and commercial flop, perhaps he shouldn’t have bothered!
10 Can Never Be Resurrected – Tom Cruise
During production of forgettable sci-fi blockbuster Oblivion, Tom Cruise was digitally scanned so that his likeness could be perfectly replicated in scenes where a digital stunt double was required. Where things get interesting is that Cruise only agreed to this on the condition that the raw data involved be turned over to him!
Presumably, the logic here was that whoever had access to the data in question could conceivably use it to engineer future performances by Cruise without the star’s involvement or permission.
This suggests that Cruise has already had the relevant legal restrictions drafted to prevent his image being used posthumously.
That tracks, given how carefully maintained his personal brand is.
9 Resurrected – Laurence Olivier
If there’s one thing we can hopefully all agree on, it’s that using CGI to “revive” deceased actors should never be done lightly.
Laurence Olivier’s cameo in Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow was seemingly done just because director Kerry Conran knew it was possible.
Drawing on archival footage and audio recordings of the late stage and screen legend, Conran and his team of visual effects wizards briefly inserted Olivier into the film as supervillain Doctor Totenkopf.
Subtle CGI ensured that the repackaged material was seamless integrated with its surroundings – but it all seems a bit pointless, especially when a different, flesh-and-blood actor could easily have done the job.
8 Can Never Be Resurrected – Carrie Fisher
Before she passed away in 2016, Carrie Fisher allowed Disney/Lucasfilm to create a digitally de-aged version of herself in character as Princess Leia for Rogue One. Even so, director J.J. Abrams has confirmed that no CGI trickery will be used to “resurrect” the actress for upcoming Star Wars sequel Episode IX. Rather, unused footage from The Last Jedi will be manipulated in order to fashion an appropriate send-off for Leia (and Fisher).
Based on a statement released by Fisher’s brother, it seems that her estate welcomes Abrams’ choice not to bring Fisher back via artificial means. What’s more, the wording used alludes to this being her final “performance,” presumably ruling out any other future appearances by an all-CGI Fisher.
7 Resurrected – Brandon Lee
In a cruel case of history repeating itself, the world lost Bruce Lee’s son Brandon at a young age, too – courtesy of an accidental gunshot wound on the set of 1994 comic book adaptation, The Crow. This likewise led to Brandon being “resurrected” via digital effects, although on the plus side, this was handled much more artfully than his father’s Johnnie Walker commercial was.
With most of Lee’s scenes finished, director Alex Proyas backed then-pioneering CGI techniques to complete his performance.
Stunt double Chad Stahelski stood in for Lee on-set, with Lee’s head composited over Stahelski’s via digital effects, and audiences barely noticed.
6 Resurrected – Humphrey Bogart & James Cagney
In a 1991 commercial for Coca-Cola, Elton John performed a concert in front of a crowd that included more than few very familiar – and very much no longer alive! – faces.
In addition to fellow musician Louis Armstrong, Sir Elton appeared to entertaining cinema greats Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.
The public reaction to the advert was mixed, to say the least. Some commentators appreciated the then-revolutionary CGI employed. Others were disgusted to see actors of Bogart and Cagney’s calibre reduced to shilling soda – although, crucially, both actors’ estates signed-off on it.
5 Can Never Be Resurrected – Bela Lugosi
Although Bela Lugosi might be an unfamiliar name to younger readers, for an entire generation of moviegoers, the late actor was Count Dracula. Such was the lasting affection for Lugosi’s portrayal of the character that Universal Pictures continued to profit off of licensed merchandise bearing the Hungarian star’s likeness for decades after he passed away in 1956.
In 1979, Lugosi’s son unsuccessfully sued Universal over its use of his father’s image, and this lead to new legislation that effectively blocks the use of Lugosi’s likeness until 2026.
Bearing in mind both the estate’s protectiveness of the Lugosi “brand” and the legal barriers in place, it seems unlikely he’ll ever be revived via CGI-- not without a fight, anyway.
4 Resurrected – Nancy Marchand
Nancy Marchand’s turn as Tony Soprano’s domineering mother Livia in The Sopranos earned the veteran stage and screen actress a Golden Globe and a Screen Actors Guild Award.
Despite Livia being such a memorable character early on in the series’ run, showrunner David Chase actually had even more planned for this malevolent matriarch – but unfortunately, this just wasn’t on the cards.
Complications related to lung cancer and emphysema would claim Marchand’s life in mid-2000, before cameras rolled on Season 3, bringing Livia’s arc to an abrupt end.
Chase felt that such a prominent character deserved a proper send-off, and used around $250,000 of the show’s budget on the CGI needed to devise a farewell scene.
3 Resurrected – Roy Scheider
Of the many films on his resume, Roy Scheider is best known to casual cinephiles for his leading role in Steven Spielberg’s classic creature feature Jaws. Obviously, the Oscar-nominated actor’s career amounted to more than one movie, and Scheider was active right up until he passed away in 2008, aged 75.
Scheider’s final bow came in Iron Cross (also known as Justice/Vengeance), even though he lost his battle with cancer prior to filming all of his scenes.
Luckily for writer-director Joshua Newton, Scheider had filmed the majority of his scenes.
All that was needed to patch over Scheider’s absence was to shoot the necessary footage with a stand-in, who wore a latex mask which was augmented using CGI.
2 Resurrected – Oliver Reed
Oliver Reed’s wild nights out on the town were still the stuff of legend long after the acclaimed English thespian entered his twilight years – and ultimately led to his passing. This tragic turn of events went down while shooting for Ridley Scott’s Gladiator was underway, which meant Reed was obviously unavailable to participate in yet to be filmed scenes featuring his character, Proximo.
That said, these scenes only amounted to a few minutes of screen time, as the bulk of Reed’s footage was already locked off. It’s hardly surprising that Scott utilized visual effects techniques – predominately digitally grafting Reed’s head onto a double’s body – to capture Proximo’s handful of missing moments.
1 Can Never Be Resurrected – Fred Astaire
Yes, Fred Astaire’s likeness was repurposed in a mid-90s commercial for Dirt Devil’s wireless hoover, but it’s also fair to say that this represents the last time the singing and dancing sensation’s image will ever be used in this way.
Astaire’s estate has since grown intensely protective of how his likeness is repurposed, to the point where new legislation has been drafted as a result.
This means that any companies looking to use today’s CGI to create bespoke footage of a deceased celebrity to promote their product should probably look elsewhere.
Astaire has hung up his dancing shoes for good!
Did we miss out any other actors resurrected by CGI? Let us know in the comments!