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The CGI Grand Moff Tarkin in ‘Rogue One: A Star Wars Story’ Raises Some Ethical & Moral Questions

The CGI version is spot on, down to the reddened skin around Moff Tarkin's eyes — but does it raise ethical questions?

By Max FarrowPublished 6 years ago 9 min read

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story has blasted into theaters, and fans couldn’t be happier! Indeed, many have even said that the movie is the true Star Wars prequel that film fans have wanted to see, since it cleverly bridges the gap between Episodes III and IV with plenty of innovation, as well as copious references to the rest of the series. Amongst the jugs of blue milk there are some crazy cameos, and the return of some familiar faces. One in particular is getting a lot of people excited – and has even prompted the studio to respond to the concerns of many fans. And no, it’s not Darth Vader...

Don’t Mess With the Grand Moff!

Yes, #RogueOne sees the comeback of one particularly iconic Imperial official: Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin. To those who aren’t as familiar with #StarWars lore, Tarkin, famously played by the late Peter Cushing, is the formidable and callous commander of the first Death Star. Since Rogue One tells the story of how this infamous battle station's plans werestolen, many had assumed that Tarkin would at least be referenced in some way because, in the words of special-effects guru John Knoll:

"This is a character that is very important to telling this kind of story."

Guy Henry on set as Cushing's Tarkin [Industrial Light & Magic]

Using actor Guy Henry as a stand in (Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1) and a lot of technical wizardry, the film makers were able to cleverly bring Cushing's iteration of Tarkin back to the silver screen. According to director Gareth Edwards it seems that a lot of work has gone into crafting the new iteration of the Grand Moff:

“It was a lot of blood, sweat and tears from...Industrial Light and Magic... [John Knoll has] always been very aggressive pushing the envelope with what visual effects can do... we went all or nothing in.”

Tarkin in A New Hope [Lucasfilm]

It’s hard to argue with what he is saying; they truly did go all in. From the reddened skin around Cushing's eyes to the individual hairs on his bald patch, the likeness is startling. Indeed, many fans applauded how cleverly he was brought back, with Michael Cavana of The Washington Post going so far as to say:

“[Cushing who] practically rules by force of glare, intonation and cheekbone... [gives] one of the best performances in ‘Rogue One’...”

It's a testament to the work of the animators, as well as Guy Henry, that the Tarkin of Rogue One is being viewed as a performance rather than just a special effect. It goes to show just how CGI-Governor Tarkin is one of the most significant CGI accomplishments in the history of cinema, even though it is not the first instance of Hollywood turning back the hands of time.

"One Who Has Returned From the Netherworld of the Force..."

Michael Douglas as present day and 1980's Hank Pym [Marvel Studios]

Special effects have long been part of creating movie magic, so changing or including characters has become part and parcel in the process. The further advances of CGI have meant that we can be treated to seeing our favorite actresses and actors being aged or de-aged, such as Michael Douglas and Hayley Atwell in Ant-Man.

But like Peter Cushing, the technology allows more than just aging to be adjusted. Other actors have been brought back to life as well. Following Oliver Reed’s death during production of his hit movie Gladiator, Sir Ridley Scott used digital trickery to place Reed’s face on body doubles so that the movie could be completed.

Marlon Brando's Jor-El returns [Warner Bros.]

Archive footage was also used so that Sir Laurence Olivier could be edited into Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, even though he had been dead for thirteen years. A similar process was also used to include Marlon Brando in Superman Returns.

Director Bryan Singer chose to follow on on from the original Christopher Reeve movies rather than start afresh. Reusing footage of Brando from the first film, Brando was digitally inserted as a computer avatar for the Fortress of Solitude to reaffirm the series’ continuity. However, none of these cases have the same amount of screen-time or bearing on the plot as the new CGI-Tarkin.

The ability to digitally recreate an actor or actress onscreen opens up a lot of doors for the studios of Hollywood, but it also raises a lot of questions. If an actor's CGI avatar can be so realistic, then how can their voice replicated to match it? Will archive footage forever limit studios, or will they be reliant on impersonators?

If Lucasfilm’s use of Peter Cushing’s visage is anything to go by, along with Alec Guinness’s voice cameo in The Force Awakens, then it seems that the sky is the limit. Certainly, in Guinness's case, the makers of Rogue One were able to extract the word “Rey” from lines that the late actor had previously spoken. As such, we can now hear him calling to our heroine (#DaisyRidley) in her mysterious vision sequence (as seen above, at approx 2:08).

Sure, it is only one word at the moment, but who’s to say what sound editors could do with the full spectrum of a person’s voice?

Could studios soon be taking audio maps of actors such as James Earl Jones, so that they could bring back the actors iconic voice for future Star Wars installments featuring #DarthVader? It certainly seems plausible given the technological strides that have been made in the last few years. In fact a rudimentary version of this technology is already here, and it's already raising many ethical concerns.

And that's not all. Gareth Edwards hinted that serious discussions about Tarkin had occurred during the production of Rogue One when he revealed:

“...you know, to be honest, a lot of people were nervous the whole time, like ‘is this gonna happen?’

So do these technological advancements, as evidenced by Rogue One, still need some work? And do they somehow cross some sort of ethical boundary?

“I’ve Got a Bad Feeling About This”

The animated Admiral Tarkin [Lucasfilm]

Sure, Tarkin’s likeness has been loosely mimicked in Episode III and on The Clone Wars cartoon show, but his vividly realistic visage in Rogue One is something else entirely. Nothing like this has ever been done for such a prolonged amount of scenes, and on such an uncannily realistic scale before.

However, the effects are not quite there yet. CGI may have progressed beyond the dead-eyed stare of Tron Legacy’s days, but in certain lighting, the slight errors in Tarkin’s facial proportions — coupled with the close-but-no cigar vocal impression by Henry — ensure that the copy still remains imperfect. Some fans have stated that Lucasfilm should have waited for the technology to have improved even further. And that's not all: others are condemning this digital-necromancy wholesale, and even arguing that it's unethical to attempt this in the first place.

Clu (Jeff Bridges) in Tron:Legacy [Walt Disney Pictures]

Indeed, David Ehrlich of Indiewire voiced his concerns about CGI-ing deceased thespians very openly in his review of Rogue One, saying:

“...they brought Peter Cushing back from the dead, and the results are unnatural, unethical, and borderline unholy.”

The propriety of recreating deceased actors for films is something that definitely needs to be discussed. If you’ve ever looked through family photos or videos, you’ll know that it can be a strange experience to view or watch someone you once knew move and speak, even though you can’t touch them. It must be even stranger, then, to see a loved one do and say things that they never actually did whilst they were alive.

Peter Cushing as Sherlock Holmes [BBC]

You may argue that this is nitpicking, but let's consider the issue of consent. Michael Douglas has his youthful avatar in Ant-Man because they had his approval. Cushing’s estate apparently received a credit from the Rogue One team, but we can only speculate whether Cushing himself would have liked being resurrected in such a way onscreen.

Last year, The Hollywood Reporter disclosed that the beloved icon Robin Williams had ensured that his image, voice and likeness cannot be used in any advertising or film until twenty five years after his death.

Robin Williams in Jumanji [TriStar Pictures]

This sort of move was an unprecedented one, but coupled with the re-use of Cushing as Tarkin, there may be something to it. We could infer that, if actors and actresses haven’t specifically outlined when or where they can appear, then studios and advertisers could use their computers to recreate them when and wherever they choose, with relative ease.

The creepiness of seeing dead celebrities reanimated can’t be ignored. It may not be as overtly disgusting as when Hannibal Lecter wore a dead person’s face in Silence of the Lambs, but there's an uncanny similarity between this and superimposing a dead actor's face over another actor. And the consequences don’t end there...

“[It’s] true, from a certain point of view.”

The fusion of live-action and digital effects used in re-creating Tarkin [Industrial Light & Magic]

Many online critics have become a little bit nervous after seeing the CGI-Tarkin, believing that it could pave the way for future reappearances of deceased talents. There's been so much concern online that John Knoll recently had to come to the defense of his creation, and even downplayed the application of these effects in future movies, saying:

"I don't imagine that [it will soon be] happening [on a wider scale]... It is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to do. I don't imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner."

Difficult and tricky it may currently be, but the general consensus now is that the genie is already out of the bottle. Surely the lure of putting bygone superstars in all-new movies will be too for strong for eccentric filmmakers, as well as opportunistic studios, to ignore?

A much-derided young Professor X [20th Century Fox]

And though the technology and its cost may be a barrier currently, it's highly plausible that it won't be in a relatively short time. Think of just how far mobile phones have come in the past twenty years; and that's nothing to say of how much digital de-aging has progressed since it was used in X-Men Origins: Wolverine less than a decade ago...

Will we see other "ghosts" return to future Star Wars installments? [Lucasfilm]

Therefore, it's not far out of the realms of possibility that we might see dead actors and actresses fully reappearing in future movies. Hollywood wouldn’t have to recast with younger actors, and so new dream casts could become a reality. A young Clint Eastwood as Wolverine? It could very well happen. However if this were to occur it could, to borrow the words of David Ehrlich, be:

“...[a] fatal decision to glorify the past at the expense of charting a new course for the present.”

Whilst he’s referring to Star War’s fan service in Rogue One, Ehrlich kinda has a point. If our focus switches from living and breathing actors to those no longer amongst us, then we may not pay heed to the wealth of talent on offer as much as we have done before.

Ehrenreich in Hail, Caesar! [Universal Pictures]

Would the #HanSolo spin off movie really feature Alden Ehrenreich as a youthful iteration of our favorite scoundrel if a near-perfect digital Harrison Ford could be generated?

It gets even more unclear if we factor body doubles into the mix. If they still need to be used in the future to capture the presence and movement of characters, as Guy Henry did for Grand Moff Tarkin, then who gets credit for the performance? Acting is all about how the actor chooses to convey their character through the subtlest of movements. If a performance like CGI-Tarkin is compelling, and even award worthy, who should be praised in the event?

The original actor whose likeness has been used? The actor underneath the effects who mimics the original performance? Or the guys in the special-effects studio?

Lupita Nyong'o prepares to play Maz for The Force Awakens [Lucasfilm]

Giving credit for the “resurrection” of these talents could be as much of a quandary as the act of resurrecting them itself!

The jury is still out as to the overall success of the CGI-Tarkin. It's clear that it's a critical step in the future of film, but there is still some way to go before we seamlessly replicate a human onscreen. Although every day brings us that one step closer to this kind of technology being commonplace, it's doubtful that authentic performances will ever be phased out- humans are far too nostalgic for that.

But as Rogue One forces us to question the grey-morality of the Rebellion and Empire, so too has it asked us to ponder the future of our on-screen talents.

star wars

About the Creator

Max Farrow

A fanatical film-watcher, hill-walker, aspiring author, freelance writer and biscuit connoisseur.

These articles first appeared on Movie Pilot between Jan 2016 and Dec 2017. Follow me on Twitter @Farrow91

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