/ 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 .