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CASE STUDY: The Ethical Challenges of CGI Actors in Films
Long-dead actors continue to achieve a sort of immortality in their films. A new controversy over dead actors is coming to life based upon new uses of visual effects and computer-generated imagery (CGI). Instead of simply using CGI to create stunning action sequences, gorgeous backdrops, and imaginary monsters, film makers have started to use its technological wonders to bring back actors from the grave. What ethical problems circle around the use of digital reincarnations in film making?
The use of CGI to change the look of actors is nothing new. For instance, many films have used such CGI methods to digitally de-age actors with striking results (like those found in the Marvel films), or to create spectacular creatures without much physical reality (such as “Golem” in The Lord of the Rings series). What happens when CGI places an actor into a film through the intervention of technology? A recent example of digital reincarnation in the film industry is found in Fast and Furious 7, where Paul Walker had to be digitally recreated due to his untimely death in the middle of the film’s production. Walker’s brothers had to step in to give a physical form for the visual effect artists to finish off Walker’s character in the movie, and the results brought about mixed reviews as some viewers thought it was “odd” that they were seeing a deceased actor on screen that was recreated digitally. However, many argue that this was the best course of action to take in order to complete film production and honor Paul Walker’s work and character.
Other recent films have continued to bet on using CGI to help recreate characters on the silver screen. For instance, 2016’s Rogue One: A Star War Story used advanced CGI techniques that hint at the ethical problems that lie ahead for film-makers. Peter Cushing was first featured in 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope as Grand Moff Tarkin. In the Star Wars timeline, the events that take place in Rogue One lead directly into A New Hope, so the story writers behind the recent Rogue One felt inclined to include Grand Moff Tarkin as a key character in the events leading up to the next film. There was one problem, however: Peter Cushing died in 1994. The film producers were faced with an interesting problem and ultimately decided to use CGI to digitally resurrect Cushing from the grave to reprise his role as the Imperial officer. The result of this addition of Grand Moff Tarkin in the final cut of the film sent shockwaves across the Star Wars fandom, with some presenting arguments in defense of adding Cushing’s character into the film by claiming that “actors don’t own characters” (Tylt.com) and that the fact that the character looked the same over the course of the fictional timeline enhanced the aesthetic effects of the movies. Others, like Catherine Shoard, were more critical. She condemned the film’s risky choice saying, “though Cushing’s estate approved his use in Rogue One, I’m not convinced that if I had built up a formidable acting career, I’d then want to turn in a performance I had bupkis to do with.” Rich Haridy of New Atlas also expressed some criticism over the use of Peter Cushing in the recent Star Wars film by writing, “there is something inherently unnerving about watching such a perfect simulacrum of someone you know cannot exist.”
This use of CGI to bring back dead actors and place them into film raises troubling questions about consent. Assuming that actors should only appear in films that they choose to, how can we be assured that such post-mortem uses are consistent with the actor’s wishes? Is gaining permission from the relatives of the deceased enough to use an actor’s image or likeness? Additionally, the possibility is increased that CGI can be used to bring unwilling figures into a film. Many films have employed look-alikes to bring presidents or historical figures into a narrative; the possibility of using CGI to bring in exact versions of actors and celebrities into films does not seem that different from this tactic. This filmic use of CGI actors also extends our worries over “deepfakes” (AI-created fake videos) and falsified videos into the murkier realm of fictional products and narratives. While we like continuity in actors as a way to preserve our illusion of reality in films, what ethical pitfalls await us as we CGI the undead—or the unwilling—into our films or artworks?
- What values are in conflict when filmmakers want to use CGI to place a deceased actor into a film?
- What is different about placing a currently living actor into a film through the use of CGI? How does the use of CGI differ from using realistic “look-alike” actors?
- What sort of limits would you place on the use of CGI versions of deceased actors? How would you prevent unethical use of deceased actors?
- How should society balance concerns with an actor’s (or celebrity’s) public image with an artist’s need to be creative with the tools at their disposal?
- What ethical questions would be raised by using CGI to insert “extras,” and not central characters, into a film?
Haridy, R. (2016, December 19). “Star Wars: Rogue One and Hollywood’s trip through the uncanny valley.” Available at: https://newatlas.com/star-wars-rogue-one-uncanny-valley-hollywood/47008/
Langshaw, M. (2017, August 02). “8 Disturbing Times Actors Were Brought Back From The Dead By CGI.” Available at: http://whatculture.com/film/8-disturbing-times-actors-were-brought-back-from-the-dead-by-cgi
Shoard, C. (2016, December 21). “Peter Cushing is dead. Rogue One’s resurrection is a digital indignity“. The Guardian. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/dec/21/peter-cushing-rogue-one-resurrection-cgi
The Tylt. Should Hollywood use CGI to replace dead actors in movies? Available at: https://thetylt.com/entertainment/should-hollywood-use-cgi-to-replace-dead-actors-in-movies
William Cuellar & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 12, 2019
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.
The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:
Media Freedom and the Middle East: Pursuing a Self-Regulatory Approach in Qatar
Associate Professor of Journalism
University of Texas at Austin
February 19 (Tuesday) ¦ 3:30-4:30PM ¦ BMC 5.208
Laws throughout the Middle East and North Africa dramatically limit freedom of expression by prohibiting journalists from engaging in basic newsgathering functions, including taking video and photos in public. Historically, journalists and the general public alike have faced potential criminal punishment for violation of these laws, which also often prohibit the publication of information deemed offensive, embarrassing or sensitive. Recently, however, Qatar has begun to explore ways to promote media freedom and Western investment in media through the initiation of the Qatar Media Hub. Organizations operating through the QMH would ascribe to a code of professional ethics as a means of regulation, potentially taking them outside the scope of traditional criminal law. During a recent consulting trip to the country, I urged government leaders to adopt this self-regulatory approach in lieu of traditional government regulation as a means of advancing free expression. My current work explores the benefits of ethical self-regulation as well as global approaches to media self-regulation in the hope of drafting a workable model for Qatar’s new initiative.
Dr. Amy Kristin Sanders is an award-winning former journalist, licensed attorney and associate professor. Before joining the faculty of The University of Texas at Austin, she taught for more than four years at Northwestern University’s campus in Doha, Qatar. Her research focuses on the intersection of law and new technology as it relates to media freedom. Specifically, she focuses on international and comparative media law and policy issues, including media freedom, Internet governance, social media and digital literacy. She has authored more than 20 scholarly articles in numerous law reviews and mass communication journals, and she is a co-author of the widely recognized casebook “First Amendment and the Fourth Estate: The Law of Mass Media.”
The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow MEI and CME on Facebook for more information. Media Ethics Initiative events are open and free to the public.
CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Real-Person Fan Fiction
In the world of fan fiction, there is a thin line between creative works by fans who admire and take inspiration from their favorite celebrities and stories that might be harmful to that person’s identity and reputation. A popular subgenre within the fanfiction world is called “real-person fanfiction” or RPF. This subgenre of fanfiction occurs when fans write their favorite public figures—including actors, athletes, and musicians—into fictional stories. These realities are created, owned, and controlled by fans, leading to a wide array of creative and sometimes disturbing storylines. For instance, one story depicts an adulterous affairs between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whereas another story is titled “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” The latter story is controversial precisely because of narrative events such as the following: “‘I’ve never been with a man, either, Jesus. I’m scared, just like you are, but we can’t let our fears rule us! I love you, Jesus. Do you love me?’ Hitler’s eyes had tears in them. Jesus smiles. ‘Yes, Hitler. I love you.’ They embraced. Again, they kissed passionately” (Angkras, 2010). Beyond the offense given to religious communities in this story, other real-person fanfiction narratives range from wholesome but mundane stories to hardcore explicit erotica. There are also hundreds of thousands of fanfictions tagged as “incest,” “rape/non-con[sensual],” ”domestic violence,” and ”underage sex,” a range of often-forbidden topics enabled by the freedom of expression and creativity afforded in the often-anonymous world of fanfiction writing.
Controversy over the ethics of fanfiction gets even more intense when its subjects are contemporary real individuals such as celebrities. Fans have used the abilities to create and quickly share content in digital form to write their favorite public figures into scenarios the fan may have fantasized about, but which may be taboo in real life and shocking to the actor or celebrity depicted. In most communities, sexual relationships between siblings is generally stigmatized; in the digital arena of fanfiction, amateur authors can safely “publish” narratives such as “Taken,” written by “Missbeizy,” which depicts a fictional sexual relationship between the actor Elijah Wood and his sister in its made-up story line. Siblings such as James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter series, as well as the actors Liam and Chris Hemsworth, have also been the protagonists in such lurid fan-written creations. While many RPF creations function as satire or as simply bad story-telling, other fan creations feature well-known actors or celebrities being brutally raped or in scenarios involving underage sexual encounters. All of these raise the question of how much control a real but public person has over his or her image in fictional creations.
Fans of fanfiction have debated such controversial extremes. Celebrities have taken to social media to air their personal opinions about fanfictions and real-person fanfiction narratives. For instance, Lynn Flewelling, author of The Nightrunner Series, has not been shy about her feelings: “That being said, here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL. Anyone still unclear on my feelings should read the previous sentence again.” Celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender have encountered their own fanfiction echoes and seem to be amused by them. On The Graham Norton Show, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender were read the synopses of multiple fanfictions about themselves; Fassbender called them “amazing” and McAvoy joked after reading one about him having Fassbender’s baby, “IVF can do incredible things these days” (BBC, 2014).
Fans also have been divided in their opinions of real-person fanfiction. Some argue that it is their right to creative expression and that this a way for them to put their admiration and love for these celebrities into words. They claim that it does no harm as long as it is respectful, described appropriately as “fiction,” and published on the right websites. A now-defunct Reddit user defended real-person fanfiction by stating that “celebrities do have a right to privacy, but most RPF writers aren’t engaging in behavior that the celebrity should find troubling. We don’t stalk them, we don’t approach them in real life and we don’t actually believe that our made-up stories are real” ([deleted], 2018). Other fans who oppose these creations also publicly worry about the potential harms that such stories might spawn: “I’m sure there are quality stories out there, but I think the fact fanfiction deals with real people and, from what I’ve seen around, can also feed delusions about these real people which creeps me out to some extent” (Andy, 2015).
Given that “real” art is often transgressive and offensive, and that it often uses or targets real people, the question becomes: How should we think about the ethics of fan-created expressive works that center on and feature real people who may not agree with such a usage? What are the limits to our thoughts and expressions involving celebrities and public figures? When does fan fiction become a real ethical problem?
- What are the ethical concerns and problems with real-person fanfiction (RPF)?
- What ethical values are in conflict when fans create RPF works and celebrities attempt to control their public image?
- What are the ethical lines that RPF should not cross? Would these limits apply to professional artists who often base fictional stories on real-life events and figures?
- Some art is specifically designed to lampoon, criticize, or embarrass its real-life subjects. Might RPF serve this critical function? If so, how does this impact your judgments of the ethics of RPF works?
Andy. “Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Fanfiction” Seoulbeats, August 14, 2015, http://seoulbeats.com/2015/08/roundtable-lets-talk-about-fanfiction/
Angkras. “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” Fanfiction.net, July 10, 2010, https://www.fanfiction.net/s/6130321/1/Jesus-and-Hitler-A-Romance
Anonymous. “Ms. Brie.” Archive of Our Own, August 19, 2016, https://archiveofourown.org/works/2775158/chapters/6223796
BBC. “Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy’s fan art romance – The Graham Norton Show – BBC”. YouTube, May 2, 2014, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yrwnzT8vK0w
[deleted]. “RE: Is writing RPF fanfiction really a bad thing?”August 2018, https://www.reddit.com/r/FanFiction/comments/94dn8j/is_writing_rpf_fanfiction_really_a_bad_thing/
Flewelling, Lynn. “Lynn Speaks Re: Fanfiction.” December 11, 2004, https://groups.yahoo.com/neo/groups/Flewelling/conversations/messages/17267
Missbeizy. “Taken.” Archive of Our Own, December 12, 2014, https://archiveofourown.org/works/14587089
SapphicAndSarcastic. “The Rape of Jensen.” Archive of Our Own, March 6, 2017, https://archiveofourown.org/works/10120133
Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 26, 2018
Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.