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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?

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