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Digital characters are making their marks in Hollywood

They are increasingly being used instead of live humans in movies

SHARE Digital characters are making their marks in Hollywood

When Angelina Jolie was cast as Lara Croft in the movie version of "Tomb Raider," most gamers applauded the choice; Jolie, they say, has the look and the attitude to convincingly play the star of the popular video game. A handful of fans, however, were nonplused — Lara Croft is a sex symbol in her own right and one of the most downloaded faces on the Internet. Why couldn't she play herself?

The answer "because she's not real" won't cut it anymore. The busty, butt-kicking Lara Croft is a digital creation and not even a state-of-the-art one. But with recent advances in computer-generated imagery, filmmakers could develop photo-realistic human characters for the movie. In fact, the upcoming "Final Fantasy," set for release in 2001, features a "human cast" created entirely in the computer. A peek at a teaser trailer on the film's Web site www.finalfantasy.com shows just how realistic they are; although no one is likely to mistake them for living, breathing human beings, they are the most convincing facsimiles anyone has come up with yet — and even greater advances are promised before the film's release.

Topping that, a Hollywood Reporter article recently stated that Andrew Niccol (who wrote "The Truman Show") plans to use a computer-generated actress opposite Al Pacino in his next movie, "Simone."

Actors should be worried, right? After all, Lara Croft is already an international star, the dream girl of millions of hormone-juiced teen boys. And photo-realistic human characters aren't going to show up late to the set, pout in their trailers, throw tantrums or demand salary increases. Even so, it seems it's the very people who are likely to do that — the stars — who are least threatened by the technology.

"I don't believe that the human spirit is ever something that can be crushed," says Orlando Jones, who currently appears in "The Replacements" but is probably best-recognized as the guy in the "Make 7-Up Yours" commercials. "I think there's something just electric between an audience and a performer that I'm not sure animation will ever (equal)."

Others agree. "I don't think there's a lot of concern among principal actors," says Allen Weingartner of the Screen Actors Guild. "There's a human spark that they have that a digital character can't provide."

There must be some concern, though: Weingartner's full title is "senior administrator of industrial and interactive contracts." And digital characters, most notably Jar Jar Binks from "Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace," have already been used. But Weingartner points out that even Jar Jar wasn't completely digital.

"I do think you will eventually see a movie with one completely digital character," he says. "It hasn't happened yet. With Jar Jar, there was an actor who did the voice."

And even "Final Fantasy" — whose makers declined to comment for this article — is providing work for familiar names: Alec Baldwin, James Woods and Ming-Na, to name a few. And SAG is watching "Simone" carefully to make sure that a guild member is used in developing the computer-generated character.

Further down the acting food chain, though, there may be cause for worry. Digital technology has already been used to increase the number of extras in scenes (recent examples include "The Patriot" and "Gladiator") and to substitute for stunt people in especially risky situations.

"'Titanic' is a case in point," says Bob Hoffman, an effects supervisor at Digital Domain, which did the effects for the movie. "You have a character fall 350 feet, hit a propeller, then drop 300 more feet into the water. There is no stunt man alive who could do that or who would even be nuts enough to try." So a stunt man fell 50 feet, and then the fall was digitally "extended."

Effects supervisors stress that movies are a collaborative process and the effects are just part of the process. They're not in the business to make Frankenstein creations.

"I don't think we'd ever want to put an actor out of work," says Chris Mitchell of Industrial Light and Magic, George Lucas' effects house. "People may want to create substitutes just because they can, but I don't see it." Mitchell, in fact, recently worked in tandem with an actor-director: He was lead animator on Clint Eastwood's "Space Cowboys," which used digital duplicates of Eastwood, Donald Sutherland, Tommy Lee Jones and Loren Dean for spacewalk scenes (a duplicate James Garner wasn't needed, since he remains on the ship).

"A lot of this stuff that we're doing in space, in this weightless environment, we had to do digitally," Mitchell says. "If we have someone just hanging from wires, they look like they're hanging from wires. Some of that stuff you can get away with, but most audiences are too sophisticated for that."

The technology is so sophisticated now that most moviegoers didn't realize that spacewalkers in "Space Cowboys" occasionally were not the actors themselves but digital mock-ups. It would therefore stand to reason that if digital effects are that convincing, it could be a way to steer around skyrocketing actor salaries. But as it turns out, the technology is often still more expensive and labor-intensive than using an actor.

Still, substitutions occur — sometimes in desperate situations. When Brandon Lee died during filming of "The Crow," and Oliver Reed died before production was complete on "Gladiator," digital technology was used to help "complete" their roles. And if it could be done so seamlessly when someone dies, who's to say that it can't be done in other emergency situations — say, when actors go on strike, as they're currently doing against the advertising industry?


Robert Philpot is film critic for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. You can call him at (817) 390-7872, or e-mail: robp@star-telegram.com. Visit the Star-Telegram's online services on the World Wide Web: www.star-telegram.com