Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (2022)

When reading the mainstream media one would think that in a few years’ time, there won’t be any more real actors in Hollywood. With the advent of CGI and AI, people think that everything will be replaced by computers. But how big will the changes actually be?

First off, computers and AI will never fully replace actors. The industry will change, yes, but there will always be a need for actors. I personally see it as a huge opportunity to enhance the art form and explore new opportunities.

So what is the state of the current industry, and how are new opportunities created? In this longer article, I want to explore all aspects and points of view.

Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (1)

Looking at the history of CGI and how it was initially used to get stuff done that might not be possible in the real world, or stunts that are too difficult and dangerous, or to bring impossible creatures to life, it might be a logical evolution to replace humans as well eventually.
That’s how we got the Dinos in Jurassic Park, Gollum or Caesar.

It was inevitable that somewhere some director would think “boy wouldn’t it be nice if I could make the actor do exactly what I want without all the drama!”

So directors kept pushing and technology kept evolving and with every new attempt we are getting closer. Depending on how you look at it, we are already there in some ways.
Look at Benjamin Button and we’ve got there a while ago, but what we still don’t have is a full CG human character carrying a movie on its own while being 100% no doubt believable.

Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (2)

Most recently Alita or Gemini Man have taken further steps closer and having seen the technology that is being developed behind the scenes, I am convinced that it’s only a matter of time until the right director comes along that knows how to handle a project like this.

You look at this trailer and tell me this isn’t already almost perfect. The only stuff that’s throwing me off is the physics of some of that motorcycle stuff.

I’m almost certain that the technology is already there. It just takes the perfect storm of Client and VFX studio to make it happen.

There is a distinction that has to be made of course.
With the advent of deep fakes and mixed techniques like in “The Irishman” or Carrie Fisher/Leia in Star Wars Ep 9, there are several ways to achieve this goal but I am specifically talking about the hard way, the full CG replacement or a full CG character that is not modeled after anyone in particular.

When is it a replacement, when an enhancement?

CGI replacements can be distinguished from each other by categorizing them through 4 stages of digital enhancement

Stage 1 – Partial enhancement
Replacing certain features of an actor’s face or body with CG enhancements.

Example:
Lord Voldemort from the Harry Potter films.

Stage 3 – Performance capture for a different character
An actor lending his/her performance to a full CG character that is not human.

Example:
Andy Serkis playing Caesar in the “Planet of the Apes” Trilogy

Stage 2 – Digital de ageing or other effects
Larger scale digital manipulation while applying digital effects on top of original footage.

Example:
Younger Actors in “The Irishman”

Stage 4 – Full CG human replacement
Replacing a human that has died or is unavailable with a full CG character.

Example:
Paul Walker in “Fast and the Furious 7”

So, will CGI Replace Actors?

Whether CGI will or will not replace actors is the wrong question to ask. What’s more interesting is in what capacity.

We see the trend, it is only a matter of time until the technology is available to fully replace someone with CGI. I have worked on several confidential projects that have looked extremely promising but were scrapped for various reasons, so the public will not get to see how far ahead technology really is.

But with deep fakes and continuous improvements in 3D scanning and photogrammetry and a more and more prevalent integration of deep learning algorithms and AI into the process, the option will be available to directors very soon.

The role of AI

AI has become a large part of modern VFX pipelines these days. Especially when it comes to solving facial capture we’ve seen deep learning and AI being integrated to support artists with the daunting task of capturing microscopic movements in actors’ faces.

Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (3)

In the end, however, it will always require human input. Even the most perfect face scan will feel slightly off when it comes to capturing the exactly perfect emotional expression. A computer can’t detect the actual feeling a character is supposed to convey. They are too complex and the same face shapes might mean different things in a different context.
Human emotions are too complex for an AI to fully grasp.

These things need highly trained and experienced human input. And so far there is no computer who has been able to “feel” an actor’s emotion and perhaps tweak the expressions past what the actors face is doing, just so that the CG character truly matches the emotional feel of the original.

Lower costs

We start seeing stuff pop up everywhere these days, young Kurt Russell or Michael Douglas in Marvel films are examples of how slowly the technology becomes available to smaller productions as well which means it is becoming easier and therefore cheaper to use.

Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (4)

Will actors become obsolete?

I was really disappointed when our work on “War for the Planet of the Apes” didn’t win the Oscar for Best Visual Effects, to me this was a no brainer from a technical and artistic point of view. However, I do understand that there might be a fear among actors in Hollywood that they might become obsolete or that they might have to squeeze into Mocap suits and put on those dumb performance capture helmets on more often.
But I think this fear is unfounded.

Actors will not become obsolete.

A CGI Performance does not make living actors obsolete. Even Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One was played by an actor and while the performance was captured and retargeted on a Peter Cushing “puppet” it didn’t automatically become a Peter Cushing performance.

No one knows what Cushing’s acting choices would have been like for this role, no technological advance will ever replicate a genuine human performance.

There is still an actor needed on set to make the acting decisions. That’s why I understand on one hand why Andy Serkis was so adamant about selling his performances for Caesar or Gollum as his performance because at its base, they were.

Animators might not like to hear this but in the end, even if we keyframed everything, even if we had to make slight changes to certain parts of a performance, the majority of the performance and the personality of the character belongs to Andy.

He shouldn’t have downplayed the contribution the animation team made to enhance his work, of course, that was a bad move, but in the end, the overall character is his.

Creativity

Nothing beats a genuine human performance. No animator or AI will ever replicate Meryl Streep. It is artistic expression that makes human performance so captivating.

Each actor brings their own personality into their roles.
Al Pacino, Jonah Hill, Brad Pitt, Jennifer Lawrence, Meryl Streep are all great actors who albeit playing lots of different roles, are recognizable and bring in their own personalities in incredible and creative ways.

CG Characters can only get close to something like that if they are not driven by a recognizable actor behind it. When it’s the Animator driving the performance we get something similar, however, these kinds of films will never be a competition to real-life acting just because they are part of a different niche of the industry.

Technology Evolves

On the other hand, give technology a few more years and mocap suits will be obsolete. And so will those uncomfortable performance capture helmets.
Look at how the ILM team captured the actors’ faces in “The Irishman” through an ingenious method, using infrared light and a camera that captures infrared only.

Also, check out this great article from Fxphd on the making of the movie.

Cost

This brings me to the next point, Visual Effects are expensive!
A director who is more concerned about acting, performance, and humans, over visuals and trickery, might choose to do things without big visual effects. And some stories just don’t require visual effects, remember amazing films like Captain Fantastic who likely were filmed on a shoestring budget and moved me to tears nonetheless. There will always be a place for non VFX films.

The “Star Factor”

Imagine if we didn’t have a Brad Pitt, Dwayne Johnson, Scarlett Johanson or Jennifer Lawrence anymore.
Humans have always looked up to idols and icons. It’s a human thing to do. Humans need someone to admire, to idolize to inspire them to do the same.

I’m not saying that film stars can be the only ones doing that. For me personally it’s more the Elon Musks, Jacinda Arderns or Bill Gates that motivate me but to each their own.
What is clear though is that human desire to admire and follow someone will never disappear as it is a natural instinct.

In the same turn, companies will always do their best to push people into the limelight so they can act as faces of their marketing campaigns to sell their products.
It’s a part of the economy that drives huge amounts of money.
Because of that, both the emotional and economical factors guarantee that there will always be a new icon that people can look up to.

For established actors it is also a great chance to enhance their brand. Allowing production to use their image can create a new form of passive income. They could be shooting one movie that they love while they could allow a CG version of themselves to be used in another movie that they might not really want to do. This kind of income could even be passed down to their children.

Artistic excellence is hard to replicate

This is my main point over all of this and why I am convinced that actors will not go extinct.

Like a great painter, or sculptor or any other artist. Excellence is acquired through countless hours of practice and hard work over an excruciatingly long period of time.

Replicating that same level of excellence requires an equal amount of talent and skill that is not cheap and takes a long time to produce.
Sometimes it’s just easier to just point a camera.

Could CGI Replace Actors, and Should it? (5)

Why Actors Won’t Become Obsolete

Computers can’t make artistic choices. Computers are not creative.

Creativity is borne from years of practice, training, and exploration.
Top creatives know from exploration what can look nice and what makes the most sense in any given situation.

While AI has found ways to get around that through just sheer number of repetitions when it plays millions of rounds of Dota against itself, humans can distinguish real creativity from something created by a machine.

And even if it is not distinguishable anymore one day, the value of true human creativity will always be higher than what a machine has created.

As stated before, recreating something so lifelike that it is indistinguishable from its original is expensive. Very expensive. Companies like Weta Digital who are the world leaders in the field barely manage to make a profit because their product is so high end that almost no one, take Disney and the big film studios, is able to pay for it.

What also makes us human is the ability to choose. We can choose how we spend our time and what we want to do with the time that is given to us.
I am absolutely certain that some actors will never agree to have their image replicated, that alone will keep the demand for new talent high.

On the other hand, there will likely be a substantial amount of people on the consumer side, “Entertainment Vegans” if you will, who value the feeling of seeing genuine human performance highly enough to avoid artificial recreations completely.

Ethics of Identity Replication

This is as much or perhaps even more so an ethics discussion as it should be about technology.

Technology is already at the point where things are becoming indistinguishable and usually technology evolves while no one asks whether something should be done and if yes, how it should be done.

Who owns your image?

The first answer is likely that YOU own your image.

But what about the film you’re in or the video game that uses your likeness?
Who owns the rights to that content? Especially in the video game industry, the question of what happens if a company would want to produce a sequel of a spinoff is a big one.

Audiences might want to see more of a certain character.

Imagine Tony Stark or Princess Leia played by someone other than Robert Downey Jr. or Carrie Fisher. Are we to let these characters die because their actors can’t be replaced like a James Bond or Dr. Who?

Once technology is cheap enough for everyone to access, there will be pressure from production companies to keep franchises going after an actor has died or perhaps they don’t want to work on a certain project anymore.’

I have worked on projects that I can’t talk about in detail due to them being highly confidential but they were already going all the way to recreating long-dead people without asking the question of whether it should be done or not.

A lot of people will find it extremely disrespectful and distasteful to the dead.

What terms need to be fulfilled for a person to agree for his/her image to be used?
Robin Williams as an example has already put restrictions on the use of his image in publicity for 25 years after his death according to his legal documents.
These are large questions that will have to be asked eventually as we gain more experience.

It will likely take early adapters to agree on their image being used and going through the process of living with their decision.
Some will be successful and find it enhances their life and their brand, while others might find it a burden, or work with the wrong people who might break the rules.
Based on these experiences, new laws and regulations will be created that can give us a better overview of what is humane and what isn’t.

In a post-COVID-19 world, this is even more important as people are trying to figure out how they could replace their traditional income if we as a society move away from close interactions.
No matter if a vaccine will be found, things have been put in motion now that will make people rethink processes and prepare for the next time a global pandemic like this happens.

Actors could have their image used while they isolate at home for example.
This would also keep the film industry going and keep a HUGE amount of people employed.

A hybrid future

I can imagine a future where there might be some kind of library of likenesses. All with various levels of reproduction rights. Just like today’s stock photography libraries. Some might be free but only for non commercial use, some might be available for any kind of use but for a high price.

These likenesses will be owned by studios or families and a tradable good just like any other creative product.

Big questions will need to be asked in the future.

I personally am excited for what is to come. It will create more opportunity, more ideas, and more ways of creative expression.
We haven’t even gone into human/computer hybrid creation where humans use computers to enhance their abilities.

For further reading, I highly recommend this article on the ethics of computer-generated actors.

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