/ Technology

How ethical is a ‘digital resurrection’?

Robin Williams in Mrs Doubtfire

The late actor Peter Cushing’s CGI insertion into the latest film in the Star Wars franchise is an impressive technological achievement, but it does raise a number of questions around image rights and ethics.

For those who are unaware, Cushing was well known for his appearance as Grand Moff Tarkin in 1977’s Star Wars, among many other notable roles, including TV’s Sherlock Holmes in the late 1960s.

Thirty-nine years later, his likeness has been digitally inserted into Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, with another actor providing his voice.

Cushing passed away in 1994 – there’s no way he could have foreseen such advancements in technology allowing a ‘digital resurrection’ to be a possibility. But if he had, would he have approved?

Doubtful Doubtfire

There was one actor, however, who did see this coming.

Before his death in 2014, Robin Williams established a trust, passing on rights to his name, signature, photograph and likeness.

The Guardian describes it as ‘a new form of privacy contract based on the availability of new technologies’.

Williams’ arrangement means we won’t be seeing the much-loved actor digitally inserted into any films or advertisements. No matter how far CGI progresses, there won’t be a Mrs Doubtfire 2! (As a side, I do wonder how much of Williams’ titular character would have been digitally enhanced, rather than relying on make-up, had the film been released in 2016).

Williams was able to base his decision on the modern world he saw advancing around him. But for actors like Cushing, contracts such as this came that little bit too late.

Posthumous appearance

This opens up a debate when it comes to using the likeness of the deceased who didn’t live long enough to get a say.

While many will have the decision made by family, could some film studios be so preoccupied over whether they could, that they aren’t stopping to think if they should? (Thanks to Jurassic Park‘s Dr Ian Malcolm for that one).

Cushing’s posthumous Star Wars appearance also reminded me of a blog I once published titled ‘The Holographic Gigs of the Future’ (I can be a bit of a geek, but stick with me). In that case, I hypothesised that bands from the past could one day be resurrected as super-realistic holograms, playing gigs to an adoring public once again.

Similar tech has already made its debut, such as the Tupac ‘hologram’ at Coachella in 2012.

Is it inconceivable that The Beatles could sell out Wembley Stadium one day in the future? And, if they did, would John Lennon and George Harrison have wanted that to happen?

What do you think about digital resurrections: creepy and disturbing or a testament to the power of technology? And what about all those entertainers, like Cushing, who passed away too soon to have a say?


There seems to be no depth of financial depravity that the 6 media conglomerates who control the western world media will sink to . It is starting to reach the stage when you have to “copyright ” yourself in case somebody pinches “you ” . Robin Williams , although not appearing so was a sensitive soul who was hurt inside with the way this world treated him , he was also intelligent enough to see into the future and know by actual experience what the giant media companies were like . I hope he is now a lot happier than what he appeared to be on this earth. When a certain giant chemical company can sue and get damages for somebody growing inadvertently its products because it has “copyrighted ” them (GMO ) then to rip-off dead people and thereby directly their next of kin is despicable in my book.

Bishbut says:
29 December 2016

A new thing that will get used and used by those who think it will cause interest in their maybe uninteresting films until they discover something else and then this will become as most things are old hat and forgotten about . Just trying as always to make sensational films so that fools will pay to go and watch


I think we need to differentiate between the exceptionally unlikely (holographic bands are possibly centuries in the future) and using likenesses of actors whose living was made by not only allowing but actively encouraging their images to be used. Actors seek publicity and consigning their images to film ensures that they’re seen by millions. Now, how does that differ from releasing recordings of musicians long dead?

Using a deceased actor’s image isn’t going to hurt the actor; they’re long past caring or anything, for that matter. The only people who could be adversely affected might be the actor’s family, so let’s consider that for a moment.

If a film studios uses an actor’s image as part of a current film after the actor’s death in effect they’re using only an image for which the actor was paid, anyway. If they’re not using it in a manner designed to cause outrage or offence, then honestly I don’t see a problem. I can think of many issues far more pressing that worrying about the odd appearance of a dead actor in a current film.

This reminds me of the incredibly self-righteous outbursts from the critics when ‘colorizing’ old B&W films was first possible. From the tone of the comments at that time you’d have thought someone was suggesting a Dachau theme park. Yet the technology exists to colourise (British spelling) films and it works exceptionally well in many cases, such as Wonderful Life (which also contains a lot of dead actors’ images). It wouldn’t work as well on Psycho, of that I’m certain, but it will benefit some films.

Using dead actors’ images isn’t new, either; Heath Ledger was digitally inserted after he died during a Batman film and it’s also very important to remember that film actors whose images are in demand were not a portion of the population that was routinely on the bread line.

I don’t believe there is any ethical issue around digital insertions of an image for which the dead actor has already been paid – and often handsomely. The egregious DMCA has already made it extremely difficult for honest consumers to copy music, DVDs, Blu Rays and other recordings. That’s an area that Which? should be involved in, and not worrying about whether someone who was very well paid for allowing their image to be used at all should have their image re-used. I mean, it’s almost as bad as paying massive bonuses to directors already paid very well simply for doing their job.


As I see it, the character Grand Moff Tarkin is owned by the Starts Wars franchise, so it’s down to them to decide how they’d like to play that character in any of their future works.

I’ve not seem the film in question, but a “look-alike” could easily have been used for a walk-on-part or another actor could have been chosen to play the role, if any actual acting was required.

I’m also struggling to remember what, if anything, Peter Cushing brought to the original Star Wars film. I know he made a lot of films, including (probably) some great ones. However, I suspect the inclusion of his image in the latest film was essentially done for “heritage” reasons, as a gift for old Star Wars fans.

Many famous parts, not least James Bond and Dr. Who do get regularly recast – often that brings out more from the part than a simple look-a-like could achieve. In fact, Dr. Who was played by Peter Cushing in two movies, but I doubt that anyone will be wanting to bring on a CGI Peter Cushing as the next Dr. Who.


Peter Cushing along with Christopher Lee WERE the British horror film industry they were in a long line of British horror films that made this genre famous here , sometimes both together . Its the principle I am talking about here , every excuse is made for BB to “get it free ” but when its the other way around -YOU pay . The relatives should be paid a percentage of the takings, isn’t that what capitalism is all about ?


But that’s exactly what the DMCA has tried to do – or, in some cases, done. And as for this bit about relatives being paid, I’m afraid I don’t agree. The relatives haven’t done the work.

I’m sensitive to this because of sheet music. I need all my sheet music converted to pdfs and the best source for those is IMSLP. As most of my piano work is Baroque, Classical or Romantic it’s all out of copyright. But if I try to get hold of some more recent music (Katchaturian, for instance) then it has to be bought. He died in 1978, for goodness’ sake, so why do we have people still reaping money from his output? He wrote some wonderful stuff, but he wrote it – not his relatives.


Derek: Grand Moff Tarkin was, I think, the only character that seemed to be able to control Mr Vader. He was done away with quite early in the first film.


Then why, in the US, do big court cases take place continually and unceasingly by relatives of dead film stars and others because the rights were left to them and companies/organizations abuse that . You talk about music , just look at the rights battles on that relating to well known dead pop/rock singers taken out by relatives . What happens in reality , is, if it is free , along comes BB media and buys up the rights and then sells them to the public on a one song /one charge recording basis . Just have a look at the exploitation on the web , if anybody is entitled to do the exploitation it is surely the wife/husband /children of the deceased .


Providing the artist was adequately compensated for their work while they were alive why should descendants continue to reap the rewards? It’s worth bearing in mind that G & S operettas only emerged from copyright in the early 1980s, yet most were then immediately reprinted in a very marginally different style and the copyright to those copies reinstituted.

I’m not defending exploitation, but more films fail than succeed and jobs are lost all the time. Using a dead actor’s image is only a minor aspect of a production and, providing those film companies have all paid their fair share of tax (which in the UK, is unlikely because of the generous tax breaks extended to film companies) then I really don’t see an issue.

But your argument with business buying up rights is interesting, as copyright legislation is horrendously complex. You point was “ if it is free , along comes BB media and buys up the rights and then sells them to the public on a one song /one charge recording basis “, which seems only to apply to music. No one pays for the rights to record Classical or Romantic music any more, since it’s all out of copyright. But you pay for a recording, since otherwise how would orchestras survive? Not an easy topic.


I thought the British horror film industry was only famous for being awful. Perhaps I missed its heyday.


I’m tempted to say “who cares” – because I don’t. Let them squabble over who owns the rights. In the great scheme of things it is well off my list of priorities. I’m quite happy to listen to and watch the works of the departed, but don’t need them to be resurrected. I’m not in favour of cryogenical “preservation” either – there are far too many people in the world already to think of bringing dubious characters back, so lets hope no one is going down that route. 🙂


Imitation the sincerest form of flattery and for an Actor to be remembered for their talents after their death gives them immortality and as long as the person providing the voice over is recognised for their talents, what is wrong with it, we watch cartoons versions of dead actors and that is acceptable so why does society have to be so politically correct all the time live and let live people in glasshouses shouldn’t throw stones. We waste to much time and money debating the trivia of life instead of working to improve humanity for the people living now.

Gerard Phelan says:
29 December 2016

Many people aim to leave something for their children – possibly their home, maybe antiques or their investments. Some people spend their lives creating art in such forms as: paintings, films, music, operas, film scripts and novels. These may have an ongoing value after death. For example people did not stop wanting to listen to Frank Sinatra the day after he died or burn the Mona Lisa when Leonardo da Vinci passed away.

Some arguments here say that because they were well paid (not always true) and are now dead, that these artistic works should immediately pass into public ownership. Why is art singled out for such confiscation on death and not the houses, money and everything else they owned?
Are the proponents of this confiscation followers of the French anarchist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon who declared “Property is Theft” in his 1840 book ‘What is Property’?


Assuming everyone who has something of value to leave has made a will, it is up to them to legally bequeath it to whoever or wherever they intend it to go, to include rights of ownership of valueable artifacts where relevant. It is then up to the bequeathed to do with it whatever they choose according to their conscience and the relationship they had with the deceased.

I would however draw a line at attempting to resurrect an image of a deceased friend or relative for monetary gain no matter how famous, unless it was specifically and/or legally sanctioned by the deceased.

My recently deceased sister, the youngest member of what would be considered a large family by today’s standards, unbeknown to myself had ordered a copy of a family photograph taken when we were all children to be passed onto each sibling following her passing. However, because she was unborn and therefore missing from the photograph she arranged for an image of herself as a 2/3 year old to be superimposed onto the photograph. making the whole family complete without incurring any monetary gain and leaving something to pass down to future generations.

I do question the psychological need to resurrect a deceased celebrity other than for monetary gain. Resurrection is an inability to accept the inevitability of the end of life as we understand it. Scientists are currently researching into the neurological connection between the brain and consciousness and what happens to consciousness (if anything) after the brain has died. But another topic for another day perhaps?


And there was I thinking this was just a movie-world gimmick.

Upon my demise I shall be happy for the whole of Hollywood to have complete freedom of access to any image of me at any stage of my life for no pecuniary benefit to my estate whatsoever, but something tells me it won’t happen.


I think I have just stepped into a nightmarish parallel universe, some sort of Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Peter Cushing’s image with another actor’s voice? I’m going to wake up in a moment.


Behind you….

Darrin Salt says:
29 December 2016

I know that sometimes the cost of a CGI replacement can be more than paying a (non-“A”-list) star for a small role (no offense intended). It’s not just a matter of pressing a few buttons. One day maybe.

If deceased actors avatars are used to save money, rather than employing new upcoming actors, then I think there is a genuine reason to grumble (and I am talking talent development here, rather than of the deceased’s estate) – but if the reason for use is film continuity or heaven forbid to finish a film when a star has been unexpectedly snatched from us mid-filming, then I do not have a problem. Why waste the effort put into the movie so far and to be honest, what a fitting tribute.


In a way I am astonished that the dangers of using people past in modern life are not explored. People’s grip on reality is tenuous enough given the media created bubble of what may be true or not.

Personally I think all use of past images being animated for modern minds a major concern. Consider the fun of Churchill voicing Chamberlains speeches. Of alternate histories based entirely on manipulation of images and sounds.

Whilst re-writing history could be fun it is creating lies. Lies can never be encouraged. If someone is dead then they cannot appear in films or news media after the event.

That should be a universal law. It seems bizarre we complain bitterly about political lies and “mis-statements” but apparently will condone people being fooled to believe that some actor agreed to appear in some cheesy second rate advert or film.


Frankly, I believe that the current era where the media and politicians routinely lie and distort information makes substituting an actor for the sake of artistic continuity pale into insignificance. History is being re-written all the time, Patrick; a few moved images won’t change that, and there’s also the matter of what constitutes ‘truth’ in any historical context. Look at eye witness reports of any major event to see just how unreliable supposedly ‘objective’ accounts can be. And I’m talking about current affairs. Historical accounts become largely guesswork and partially informed speculation.


I hope most of us are smart enough to distinguish cheesy second rate adverts and films from other media that purport to represent reality or recent history.

On that basis, there is a whole world of difference between the digital resurrection of Grand Moff Tarkin, in obvious service of the cash cow that is Star Wars, and a digital resurrection of Peter Cushing.

Quite often, well meaning historical accounts already mess with actual historical records, and the film industry is notorious for discarding historic facts, if they get in the way of a good story.


Patrick – I think if we take this too seriously we run the risk of becoming the ghost of Christmas past.


“I hope most of us are smart enough to distinguish cheesy second rate adverts and films from other media that purport to represent reality or recent history.”

Well one would hope that you are right – but you are talking of an older and better educated readership here. The depths of ignorance for a proportion of the population, as evidenced by surveys in the US and UK, should not be forgotten.

Humans are fairly primitive animals and fact and fiction should be separated as far as possible for the benefit of all society not reliant on a few educated people who are aware of the manipulation.

Ian comments on history being constantly rewritten as though this is a justification for more wholesale re-writing. Having roughly a thousand plus books dealing with historical evens I am conscious that views differ but a general consensus is generally available.

Do I trust the mass-media, advertisers and politicians to be as thoughtful as a historian writing to be accepted into print and subject to review. Not likely.

Readers must also bear in mind that the use of social media is already awash with bots , commercial and political, who can chip and manipulate the apparent feelings of “the majority”.

This is but the thin edge of a wedge. If I see Audrey Hepburn or somebody in a film or advert I wish to believe they chose to be included. Arguing they were paid decades ago and therefore their image is fair game for anyone to use is I think fundamentally flawed.

If I were to manipulate an image of Lord Young, a founder of Which?, to be seen criticising the current pay and pursuits of what is essentially a charity would that be ethical? Can I have an avatar with his likeness and use his name on Conversations? We all know he is deceased.


Yes Ian and the US has brought out legislation to censor “fake news ” which, in reality reports the truth , as opposed to the fake news given out officially by governments and the media. Its so blatant its embarrassing that an intelligent country like Britain could not only accept it but publicize it as the truth while those in power know the truth full well . Completely patronizing .


Patrick, stop putting words into my mouth 🙂 You’re inferring things which are not being implied in any way. The general consensus of which you speak is often influenced by all types of trends and socio-economic factors, and I suspect that merely reincarnating the odd dead actor will have at most a marginal effect. And why on earth would you wish to believe that a dead individual reincarnated would have wanted to take part in what they were depicted doing? You are aware that taking that stance effectively rules out all historical films and reconstructions?

But it worries me when you say this: The depths of ignorance for a proportion of the population, as evidenced by surveys in the US and UK, should not be forgotten. The ignorance of the population is almost certainly less now than at any time in history. And what you consider ‘ignorance’ may be perceived by others as being adequately informed. That’s a patronising view of the population and it’s totally unsupported by any meaningful measures or surveys.


Duncan, the US has not brought out legislation to censor “fake news ” which, in reality reports the truth , as opposed to the fake news given out officially by governments. Actually, that’s a splendid example of Fake News in itself. Another way of putting it is lies, pure and simple.

Now, legislation exists to deal with lies where they can be shown to impact the reputation of a person. But as for falsely reporting events – which happened a lot in the egregious Trump election – there’s still no way of dealing with that, other than printing the truth, and many don’t want to hear the truth, because it’s uncomfortable or – as research has shown – people don’t like facts when it conflicts with what they want to believe.

In other words the great mass of people is susceptible to advertising as opposed to factual information. And there are limited ways to combat that.


Your right Ian people don’t like the REAL facts but are being brainwashed by intense concentrated 24/7 propagandist lies , If you want to believe what comes out of Clinton/Obama fair enough , but I know different . Its all down to money +power and a unipolar world. Thank goodness at least a large amount of the US public can now see through them , in this country people are more inclined to accept authority and believe what they say–regardless.


Duncan: now you’re starting down the same road as Patrick. I did not say I want to believe what comes out of Clinton/Obama but several years in Universities and researching have, I hope, taught me how to discover the truth, or as near as we can often hope to get. I am, by nature, a sceptic; I suspect research turns you into that, and I take what I hear and see with significant quantities of salt until I can discover the facts. That means reading ‘around’ the subject and looking at a lot of sources – not simply the odd publication, often from the US, which purports to be ‘telling the real truth’.

And, fortunately, I have friends, similarly engaged, and whom I trust to be as impartial as possible .


The “odd publication ” Ian ? aimed at someone who has spent years getting at the truth on many western hated websites , who has been attacked on his computer many times because of it ,who has spent years running through documents that are never mentioned in the media in this country , who has posted on many international news websites , talked to 100,s of intelligent people including professors , who has a whole stack of downloaded and transfered to paper, in case of attack, actual proof from the mouths of officials in the USA and elsewhere , I couldn’t possibly post it as the rhetoric coming out of our government would make me an object of attack . Somebody is already trying to interfere with my system as we speak . If , I was allowed “free rein ” then I could post it but not in this political climate . All the same , have you heard of John Pilger -would you say he is a liar ? just read- provoking nuclear war by media on his website , if you dont believe him I have many other quotes/articles from US senators/ military/ ex. US government officials, as you probably wont believe the British versions.


Hello, while a healthy debate requires disagreement, and of course it’s fine to disagree, please make sure that comments remain friendly. Thanks 🙂


Duncan: I’ve said there is something in what you say, but much of it is simple make belief. There are still – apparently – thousands of Americans who believe the moon landings were faked, and even more who believe the9/11 attacks were the work of the CIA. Sadly, it doesn’t seem to matter how much evidence there is saying the contrary, they’re somehow obsessed with paranoid delusions of one variety or another.

As an example, you say your system is ‘being interfered with as I speak’. Think about the logic in this situation. On the one hand you argue that forces of darkness are powerful and draconian; on the other, however, they apparently can’t stop you telling the world that you’ve immense amounts of downloaded data in case of attack. I don’t think you can actually have it both ways.