Probing Question: Will digital actors replace humans in Hollywood?

September 25, 2008 By Jesse Hicks
Probing Question: Will digital actors replace humans in Hollywood?
Is she live or is she CG? This 'person' was created without a model using a 3-D rendering and animation software program called Poser. Image credit Jim Nicholson

They look like real actors, they walk like real actors, they talk like real actors. But with these stars there are no contentious contract negotiations or on-set meltdowns. They do exactly what the director tells them, down to curling a lip just so or flaring a nostril to the perfect degree, no questions asked.

Who are they? Digital actors — movie characters created entirely via photo-realistic computer animation. They're appearing in Hollywood films with greater frequency, from "The Lord of the Rings" and "The Matrix" trilogies to children's fare such as "The Polar Express." But how close are CG (computer graphics) actors to that dream vision, and will they ever replace human beings in Hollywood?

Not completely, said Kenneth Womack, noting that replacing Hollywood stars with digital counterparts would rob movie fans of one of their favorite pastimes -- celebrity gossip. “Identity politics and star-power have been central motifs in the film industry since its inception,” explained Womack, professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Brad and Angelina hold audience attention with their personal lives as much as with their acting ability, and digital actors make poor tabloid fodder.

Ultimately, though, it’s all a matter of money, said Womack. If audiences accept CG movie stars, and Hollywood can earn blockbuster cash without paying millions for a Will Smith or Tom Hanks, what’s to stop them from doing so? “If the technology can do that, the powers that be in Hollywood would be on board from a financial perspective. It may sound cynical to express it this way,” Womack said, “but in truth I have yet to come upon a decision in the film industry that isn't bound to the economic bottom line.”

So far, digital actors haven't proven less expensive than their real-life counterparts, he noted. Behind every CG character is a team of dozens, if not hundreds, of people, each of them needing to be paid. Still, some Hollywood directors have embraced digital actors for artistic rather than economic reasons. George Lucas's Star Wars" prequels gave us Jar Jar Binks, the first movie character created almost entirely on a computer. And Robert Zemeckis has directed two feature films, "The Polar Express" and "Beowulf," featuring life-like digitized versions of famous stars such as John Malkovich and Anthony Hopkins, using a CGI (computer-generated imagery) technique called motion capture, or "mocap," that records human movement and translates it onto a digital model. Those films, however, still cost vast sums to produce. ("The Polar Express" cost $150 million, the same as recent animated films, "Bee Movie" and "Ratatouille.")

Most important, audiences have been slow to accept CG characters. The first movie starring only digital actors, 2001’s "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," was a box-office bomb, losing $130 million. Last fall's "Beowulf" used much-improved technology, Womack noted, but many people still found something “off” about its stars: While the character onscreen looks like Angelina Jolie, in an unsettling way, it’s clear she isn’t Angelina Jolie. Experts have dubbed this problem "the uncanny valley." As simulated humans grow more realistic, viewers become more aware of — and disconcerted by — the subtle ways the characters don't seem human. Eyes — the windows to the soul — are especially difficult for digital animators to replicate convincingly. The current technology seems better at creating nonhuman characters, such as Gollum from "The Lord of the Rings" or the monsters of "I Am Legend."

That will change, Womack believes. If and when the technology arrives to create persuasively realistic human actors, Hollywood will embrace it. As he put it, “When CGI finally usurps the human frontier, Hollywood will undoubtedly experiment in that vein for as far and as long as the dollars will take them. That's entertainment — or at least the entertainment industry.”

Source: Research Penn State

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not rated yet Sep 25, 2008
My answer is no... the uncanny valley effect has not yet been trumped, making the characters look either deliberately unrealistic, or creepy and dead.

Voice actors are still needed, as voice synthesis is still a way off (but check out Hatsune Miku and other 2nd gen "Vocaloids" for some impressive singing and emoting - still very labour intensive to program, and audibly inhuman.

Even movies that use a lot of CG actors rely on real actors for motion capture.

If absolutely neccesary we can insert good CG actors with a lot of work, ideally non-humans, but replacing traditional actors - we'll probably never have a mass consumer market that prefers all-CG or even mostly CG even once it gets easy to do.
4 / 5 (1) Sep 25, 2008
Even movies that use a lot of CG actors rely on real actors for motion capture.

is it possible to motion capture existing footage? then it may be possible cut and paste various parts of the wireframe and then recreate an entirely new scene from recycled footage.
not rated yet Sep 26, 2008
is it possible to motion capture existing footage? then it may be possible cut and paste various parts of the wireframe and then recreate an entirely new scene from recycled footage.

That's very true and doable. I wish I could find the link to it, but I watched a video of a video editing suite (or algorithm demo?) based on vision software, that would allow things like using a photo to add detail to the video, removing obstructions like trees from moving scenes as long as some frames showed what was behind it, and various other effects that can be done when the editing software is fully aware of the data that's available to it. It was really mindblowing, and I'm sure it or something similar today could determine a decent 3D motion model from a video source, even shot in 2D...

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