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Digital Doubles Are Revolutionizing Hollywood. But Why Do Movie Stars Hate Them?

Josh Brolin as Thanos in Avengers: Infinity War. Photo: Marvel Studios

A latex mask just wasn’t going to cut it. When it came to creating the look for ThanosJosh Brolin’s half-the-universe-murdering supervillain in Avengers: Infinity War (and its April sequel, Avengers: Endgame) — the creative quorum at Digital Domain, a visual-effects house subcontracted by Marvel Studios, knew they’d need to create a “digital double” of Brolin to effectively embody the character: an eight-foot-tall, purple-hued holy warrior with the pleated chin of a blue whale and hands the size of Thanksgiving turkeys.

So Digital Domain’s Digital Humans Group (yes, that’s the real name of the department) set about extensively scanning Brolin, using hundreds of SLR cameras to achieve a high-resolution capture of his every facial nuance, as well as “motion studies” intended to archive the actor’s physicality and gait. In front of an array of devices called machine vision cameras, Brolin performed different facial expressions and ran through dialogue in several emotional registers to create a “computer training model.”

The endgame, of course, was to compile a vast computer library of renderings of him as Thanos that could be digitally manipulated by filmmakers, even long after Brolin had left the set. “And we then take all of this data that we’ve created, right? This big mountain of data all about the actors; the way they look, the way their skin moves,” says Darren Hendler, Digital Domain’s Digital Human Group director, “and we use all this data to build a version of them that looks real — that generally they’re driving — that performs and looks photo realistic.”

In light of the parent company of Marvel Studios Disney’s plans to use its scanned footage of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa, originally compiled for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in the upcoming Star Wars: Episode IX, this raised an inevitable (and dark) question: To what extent did the studio want all of those accumulated digital renderings of Brolin to complete the movie in the event of his untimely death? “When we’re scanning somebody, we don’t know if it’s for stunt-double work, for replacement on contact shots that couldn’t have been shot,” says Hendler. “Or if it’s for concerns that, in case something happens, they’ve got data of the actors to be able to create something that could maybe finish the movie.”

Welcome to the inner workings of Hollywood’s worst-kept secret: the increasingly common practice of scanning actors to manipulate their digital images in postproduction. Most often employed in the service of stunt shots — which involve seamlessly grafting a movie star’s face onto the body of a stunt double doing something life-threatening — this relatively nascent technology is finding wide application at a time when it has become cheaper and easier to digitally re-create an actor during the editing process than for, say, a bloated Ben Affleck to try to regain the ripped musculature he achieved to portray Batman six months removed from Justice League’s principal photography. Or to de-age or provide digital face-lifts for other performers. Or for Chris Evans to starve himself to play a 98-pound weakling in Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Moreover, in an era when digital versions of characters are more and more frequently combined with real actors — just as Fisher’s facial likeness from 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope was swapped onto the body of Norwegian actress Ingvild Deila, and the late British actor Peter Cushing’s face was digitally conjoined with the body of Guy Henry, both for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story — these digital doubles play an important role in bottom-line-oriented Hollywood. And the doubles provide certain guarantees that the show can go on, even when the movie’s stars can’t.

According to a high-ranking studio executive, scanning digital doubles serves as a hedge against key cast members’ premature deaths or absences or unexpected rehab stays, and has become so entrenched in the so-called tentpole filmmaking process, the major studios have found a morbidly creative way to defray its costs. On a movie’s production budget, 2-D and 3-D body and facial mapping have come to be billed as “insurance” rather than appear as line items for visual effects. “Sure, there’s the shrinking of the waists and the digital effects to pretty people up,” the executive says. “But if you’re making a $200 million production? They can write it off as part of the insurance policy. You know you’re going to be doing digital scanning to make sure you’re covered.”

Still, despite the near ubiquity of digital doubling — a process that can take up to two days, cost around a million dollars, and generate between five to ten terabytes of data — not every actor is entirely comfortable with the process. Jessica Chastain, for one, grew uneasy a couple of years ago with the facial-capture procedure that took place on the set of a certain unnamed mid-budget drama. “They took me into a room. They scanned my face. Then they asked me to smile, to frown,” she told Vulture. “I said no. I just didn’t know how they were going to use it.” In a recent New Yorker profile, Donald Glover waxed dyspeptic about the digital double of him as space smuggler Lando Calrissian that was created for Solo: A Star Wars Story. “I’m scanned into Star Wars now, my face and body,” he said. “Who’s to say that at some point they won’t take that scan and say, ‘Let’s make another movie with Donald. He’s been dead for fifteen years but we can do whatever we want with him.’”

And as far back as 1998, Chinese martial-arts superstar Jet Li turned down a role in The Matrix (as Seraph, the kung-fu-fighting guardian of the Oracle) for fear the production would try to claim digital ownership of his strikes and kicks. “[For] six months, they wanted to record and copy all my moves into a digital library,” he told the Chinese news site Weibo in October. “By the end of the recording, the rights to these moves would go to them. I was thinking: I’ve been training my entire life. And we martial artists could only grow older. Yet they could own [my moves] as an intellectual property forever. So I said I couldn’t do that.”

To hear it from Ken McGaugh, visual-effects supervisor on the postapocalyptic thriller Mortal Engines (which arrives in theaters Friday) actors have also been known to balk at the scanning process out of an abundance of concern that raw footage will somehow leak out to the public. “I have definitely encountered a reluctance to be scanned,” says McGaugh, who also has worked on such scan-heavy movies as The BFG, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets, and Avengers: Age of Ultron. “When we scan them, they tend to have a Lycra costume on and they don’t have all the makeup. They may not be looking as pristine as they are when they’re being filmed. And they’re worried about the material getting out. So they want assurances that the only people who will see the material used to generate the scan are those who absolutely need to.”

“We’ve had cast who are worried that the stunt performer’s body is going to be used digitally, rather than them,” McGaugh adds. “And we have to reassure them that we only do it when we actually have to stick something to the stunt person. It’s a bit of an ego-stroking exercise.”

Whatever a performer’s misgivings about co-existing with their digital doppelgänger might be, many major movie production companies these days make policy to warn potential cast members that failure to accept the scan treatment stands as a deal-breaker. Toward that end, in April, asked by Inverse if Lucasfilm kept a secret archive of digital clones of its films’ performers, Star Wars: The Last Jedi visual-effects supervisor Ben Morris confirmed the existence of a vast database of doubles. “We will always [digitally] scan all the lead actors in the film,” Morris said. “We don’t know if we’re going to need them. We don’t intentionally scan them as an archive process. It’s for reference later.” He also clarified who gets scanned for Star Wars, and it turns out even the alien characters do: “It’s the young actors, the old actors. All the actors,” Morris said.

Beau Janzen, the education lead for visual effects at the Gnomon School of Visual Effects, Games and Animation, says the use of VFX to erase actors’ blemishes, trim love handles, and create elaborate musculature where none existed before is so omnipresent — and of such high quality that audiences remain largely oblivious of what’s artificial on film these days. Viewed in that regard, the posthumous use of digital doubles — at least theoretically — presents some thorny dilemmas for the future application of movie magic.

“From a mechanics standpoint, I don’t see bringing back a dead actor as being fundamentally different from what’s already being done that the audience is unaware of,” says Janzen, who worked as a visual-effects artist on such movies as Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, Pixels, and Noah. “But there’s a Rubicon to cross, if we want to bring back a dead actor to a role, of what would the estate think of it? If we brought back John Wayne to make Brokeback Mountain 2, would that cause fury? Is that ethical to do? And when you’d see that, you would know it’s not real.”

According to Digital Domain’s Hendler, however, audiences need not fear the rise of digital doubles overthrowing and replacing their favorite movie stars (even if it is entirely plausible that a performer could provide future revenue streams for his or her heirs by licensing their likeness after death). “We would never use this data for anything other than that movie, working with the studio or whoever has rights to that data,” he says. “What makes Josh Brolin as Thanos so amazing is Josh’s performance. If I’m playing Thanos, it’s nothing as exciting, let me tell you. No one’s going to go and pay money to see that … right?”

Why Do Movie Stars Hate Being Digitally Scanned?