James Dean is Back, Thanks to Dr. Aki Ross
The Hero of 2001’s “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” Will Soon Be Responsible For a New Reanimation Boom.
The entertainment field was left aghast last week with the news that James Dean was coming back into the fold for his first film in over 60 years.
James Dean Reborn in CGI for Vietnam War Action-Drama (Exclusive)
James Dean, who died in a 1955 car crash at the age of 24, is making an unexpected return to the big screen. The…
Dean died on September 30, 1955.
Not that it matters. In our quest for bigger and better entertainment, we’ve been circling cemeteries for years.
It was in eras past, not recently, when the late Fred Astaire danced with a Dirt Devil vacuum cleaner, when the late Humphrey Bogart appeared on an episode of HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” (1995’s “You Murderer”), and when the late Marlon Brando appeared in “Superman Returns” (2006). More recently, Philip Seymour Hoffman appeared in “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part Two,” Paul Walker returned in “The Fast and the Furious 7,” and Peter Cushing and Carrie Fisher returned to their iconic “Star Wars” roles in “Rogue One.”
Of course, we can add Oliver Reed to the list for “Gladiator,” Laurence Olivier in “Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow,” Roy Scheider in “Iron Cross” and Brandon Lee in “The Crow.”
Which brings us to Dr. Aki Ross.
“FINAL FANTASY: THE SPIRITS WITHIN”
In 2001, a motion picture was released that promised to “revolutionize” the film industry. Typically, such fanfare over-promises and under-delivers. In this instance, however, the hype proved justified.
Billed as the first “photo-realistic” animated feature, both the moral repercussions and the potential of the progressing science of computer-generated imagery (CGI) had attained what was then its zenith.
Regardless of the film’s story, writing and voice performances (all of which I quite enjoyed but reviews were mixed) and other above-the-line particulars, the characters were all brought to life with CGI and they all delivered on the hype. As this was an early effort, though, the characters’ eyes were by and large soulless, giving the uncomfortable appearance of looking almost but not quite human. This phenomenon is regularly referred to in the philosophical branch of Aesthetics as “uncanny valley,” being a notable distance between an object’s resemblance to a human being and the emotional response it triggers in the human observer.
We still have problems perfecting the eyes. Still, Dr. Aki Ross was an early stand-out. After all, how many other CGI creations have made the Maxim Hot 100 list?
The lines began being blurred, and the world was eager to see just how far this refined technology could go. What follows are two notable predecessors that paved the way for the creation of Dr. Aki, followed by some cinematic flashpoints that Dr. Aki had, in turn, inspired.
James Cameron’s 1989 classic was notable for its use of CGI not solely as a fill-in effect, which had been the primary use of the technology to that point, but as a character. See the below images.
The visual interaction between CGI creation and human actor was, in this case, seamless.
“JURASSIC PARK” AND ITS PROGENY
Stephen Spielberg’s 1993 original film is still proclaimed by many as the finest use of CGI ever in a film. Once we had attained this height, the “next level” was to create a 3-D human.
Notably, the eyes of the dinosaurs in “Jurassic Park” and its follow-ups were immensely well-achieved, something that apparently remains easier in the capacity of a non-human character.
2001’s “Final Fantasy” (and Dr. Aki) was that “next level.” The question became, once “Jurassic Park” led to an expansion of the technology, and “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,” based on a video game (another industry that paved the way) nearly perfected it … what was next?
James Cameron appears on the list again with 2009’s groundbreaking achievement. Made on a reported budget of $237 million, not counting marketing, “Avatar” remains one of the highest-grossing films ever made with nearly $2.8 billion in global theatrical revenue.
The film was a stunning achievement, and the avatars were an outstanding blend of motion-capture, the process of recording the movements of actors, and CGI design.
Specifically, the actors wore tracking markers — dots — on their bodies and faces. Artists then created digital skeletons of the characters in a computer and designed from there, resulting in an accurate digital simulation of their movements.
“PLANET OF THE APES” MILLENNIAL TRILOGY
My personal favorite films on this list are those within the recent “Planet of the Apes” trilogy, which I believe subsequently took motion capture beyond even “Avatar.”
Andy Serkis, who played Caesar in “Rise of the Planet of the Apes,” “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes,” and “War for the Planet of the Apes,” was a revelation. For the first time with a recognizable species, all of the simian characters were truly soulful. The performance of Serkis in particular was outstanding, made so by his facial expressions.
Ever own a dog that communicated through his or her eyes and body movements? Serkis’ Caesar was much the same, and the actor delivered a troika of heart-wrenching performances that were, to my mind, criminally ignored for Oscar consideration.
SO WHERE ARE WE NOW?
Today, we have robot brothels, and innumerable virtual reality shows and attractions. Put on your goggles and you really are in a “Star Trek: The Next Generation” holodeck.
However, deep fakes are potentially the most dangerous, and invasive, of all related burgeoning technology.
Porn sites regularly utilize deep fakes to meet a whole other massive demand. Want to fantasize about having sex with your favorite celebrity? Google your desires and chances are you will find what you are looking for. The videos are horrific in the sense that it has become increasingly difficult to determine what is fake at all.
We also have holograms. Tupac really does live, you see. He returned in 2012 (ignore the 1995 stamp on the video). He was the first musician to be so honored, and he won’t be the last.
Michael Jackson’s return at the 2014 Billboard Music Awards, in my opinion, wasn’t nearly as impressive.
The recent phenomenon of de-aging, a process whereby a combination of CGI, prosthetics, and in some cases stand-in actors who resemble the originals, was recently initiated into the (newly-coined, for the purposes of this article) Human Tech Club.
Marvel led the charge. The top image is of Robert Downey, Jr. in 2016’s “Captain America: Civil War.” Michael Douglas in 2018’s “Ant-Man” is below, followed by Kurt Russell in 2017’s “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.” At the time of filming, the actors were, respectively, 50, 73, and 65 years of age.
And then there is the case of 2019’s “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese’s new classic which incorporated the de-aging of stars Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci to generally strong effect, though early shots, particularly of Pesci, were jarring. Due in part to the status of the actors, and the reputation of Scorsese, the director did not want to distract his actors by having them wear tracking markers. The specific tech utilized in this film is beyond the scope of this article, but you make the judgement as to its success. To my mind, once involved in the story, the notable technical inconsistencies tended to fall by the wayside.
WHICH BRINGS US BACK TO JAMES DEAN
I implied at the outset of this article that Dr. Aki Ross is responsible for reanimating the late James Dean. The title is not clickbait. My contention is, simply, that as technology breeds technology where we go next is up to the imagineers of the world.
And they will, in turn, shape our culture.
The oft-overlooked importance of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” is that skilled creators took notice. In years since, they’ve pushed the technological envelope into realms we never could have considered even months ago.
I believe we will soon see new films starring the likes of John Wayne and Marilyn Monroe. Whether this is good or bad, or immoral, depends on your personal belief system.
Ask yourself this — and there is no right or wrong answer — would you want to see a deceased loved one return through the use of technology? Soon you may well be able to put on your VR device and interact with them once again, or watch them in a film courtesy of a downloaded phone application.
Personally, these are tough considerations. But this is where we’re headed.
Thank you for reading.
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