Arts & Culture

Hollywood’s Digital Worlds Head Deeper Into the Uncanny Valley

From live-action animation to "de-aging" actors, moviemakers' pursuit of "realism" kills authenticity

3 min read

Still from live-action "Beauty and the Beast"
“It is hard for a photo-realistic candlestick, for instance, to convey human emotion.” Image credit: Disney
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This spring, at a presentation at CinemaCon, executives from Disney screened impressive, photo-realistic footage from the upcoming remake of The Lion King. The Lion King is only the latest in a series of “live-action remakes” of Disney’s catalogue of classic animated films, which includes The Jungle Book (2016) and Beauty and the Beast (2017). The Lion King, however, will feature little in the way of “live” action. Instead of wrangling live lions and hyenas, director Jon Favreau will be generating them out of the digital ether.

Favreau is no stranger to sophisticated digital-effects technology: The Jungle Book, his previous feature remake, takes place in the lush Indian jungle but was shot in a warehouse in downtown Los Angeles. The vast majority of that film’s imagery was computer-generated, but Favreau said the production team approached the movie “as though it was an animated film,” and did things “as you would on an animated film.” Although The Lion King, unlike The Jungle Book, will be entirely computer-generated, entertainment news outlets have unsurprisingly described it as yet another “live-action” remake.

The photo-real animation style that Favreau and Disney have chosen for these remakes is only one example of Hollywood’s current fixation on the possibilities of digital-effects technology. In the early aughts, journalists and actors worried that the motion-capture technology showcased in The Lord of the Rings, and later polished in Avatar, would render actors’ physical performances obsolete. But while motion capture has continued to develop, it is only one element of Hollywood’s larger digital-effects landscape, which also includes the photo-real animation featured in Disney’s remakes, as well as the increasingly common digital de-aging of actors. Together, these technologies represent a quest for a perfect digital re-creation of reality; instead, they’ve created a digital uncanny that now pervades blockbuster (and even some independent) cinema.

Current advances in digital-effects technology hark back to earlier developments in another artistic medium, one that still heavily influences cinema today: painting. Painters in Italy during the 14th and 15th centuries pioneered new techniques that would forever change the medium, introducing linear perspective and the realistic rendering of light. Soon, the symbolic, two-dimensional art that had flourished during the Middle Ages seemed obsolete, as Renaissance paintings had a new depth and realism.

Cinematic visual effects are currently in a Renaissance moment. The skill required to conjure the animals of The Jungle Book or the apes of the recent Planet of the Apes reboots is undeniable and at times awe-inspiring. In certain cases, as in the Planet of the Apes films, for instance, it is a necessary and useful tool to tell a story. But in many other cases this impressive technology is deployed not because it is narratively necessary but simply because it is available.

The recent and deeply unsettling development of de-aging actors–or even conjuring them from the dead–most thoroughly epitomizes this frustrating trend. De-aged actors have featured in several recent blockbusters, including Captain America: Civil War and Blade Runner 2049. But no movie received as much attention as Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which featured a younger version of Carrie Fisher reprising her role as Princess Leia, as well as the digital ghost of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, reprising his as Grand Moff Tarkin. (The latter character was actually played on the set and voiced by actor Guy Henry.) Neither of these characters convincingly resembled a human being; instead, they were unsettling digital simulacra who distracted from the story Rogue One was trying to tell. This did not deter Martin Scorsese from moving forward with The Irishman, a long-gestating project that will heavily feature de-aging technology, rendering Robert DeNiro, Al Pacino, and Joe Pesci as younger versions of themselves. There are plenty of performers who could plausibly play younger versions of these admittedly titanic actors, but Scorsese has instead decided to de-age them.

Unlike Planet of the Apes or The Lord of the Rings, which needed C.G.I. to represent prominent nonhuman characters, these more recent films do not actually require the incredibly expensive and laborious technology required to de-age their stars. Proponents of de-aging argue that the technology allows the audience to maintain an emotional bond with the characters more easily than double-casting does–but this argument is swiftly disproven by a century of cinematic precedent.

Somehow, though, the de-aging process has acquired the patina of “reality.” By this logic, de-aging DeNiro is more “authentic” than simply casting a younger actor to take his place. Similarly, the photo-real animation of The Lion King is more “real” than the symbolic, two-dimensional animation featured in the original. But even the most persuasive digital animation or motion capture falls short of true reality. Despite the great strides made by motion-capture technology, computers cannot yet convincingly resurrect the dead, or travel through time, and it is impossible for viewers to forget that de-aged actors are digital creations–or that the lions they are watching are not living beings.

The fear that actors will fall by the wayside in the face of advances in digital technology has mostly subsided. But actors have become subsumed by Hollywood’s relentless quest for digital perfection. The “reality” that studios have attempted to re-create through photo-real animation and de-aging bears little resemblance to actual lived experience. Instead, it represents an effort to create a Platonic ideal of reality down to the smallest engineered detail.

The photo-real animation style currently in vogue is ultimately no more “real” than the 2-D animation that made Disney classics famous, just like humanist Renaissance paintings were no more “real” than their symbolic Medieval predecessors. Photo-real animation simply represents a different, less interesting ideal. As many commentators have observed, the original, 2-D versions of Disney’s characters are considerably more expressive than their photo-real counterparts: it is hard for a photo-realistic candlestick, for instance, to convey human emotion.

Digital animators may forever continue their impossible quest for perfection, but the history of art is encouraging. After realism in painting peaked in the wake of the Renaissance, Western art started to get weird, and that weirdness ultimately led to many of Disney’s greatest animated films. Here’s hoping Hollywood takes a cue from its forebears and moves digital-effects animation in a different, less realistic, direction soon.

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How We Get To Next was a magazine that explored the future of science, technology, and culture from 2014 to 2019. This article is part of our Arts & Culture section, which looks at innovations in human creativity. Click the logo to read more.