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Why cinema and human actors will save us from the apocalypse

For a century, the principles of screen acting have remained broadly the same – actors turn up, they do their bit to camera and they keep going until they retire or die. Previously, that used to signal the last we’d see of an actor on screen but now, with the advancements in digital technology filmmakers have the opportunity to resurrect an actor. With state-of-the-art animation and motion capture, filmmakers are able to create digital characters that are arguably as convincing as the real thing.

So, what does this mean for the actors of the future? Will humans still have an important part to play and how will directors continue to push boundaries in this space?

This topic formed the basis of Digital Cinema Media’s (DCM) recent panel discussion at the 2017 Mindshare Huddle, where DCM’s Head of Film, Tom Linay, spoke with Terri White, Empire Magazine’s Editor-in-Chief. Tom and Terri discussed who or what will be the actors of the future, covering the topics of computer-generated imagery (CGI), motion capture and digitally resurrecting actors.

The biggest film of 2016, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, featured a prominent character played by Peter Cushing, an actor who died in 1994. Many people were fooled by it too, believing the performance was delivered by an actor who is very much alive. Whether this is ethically right remains a different topic of conversation and whether this is something we’ll see a lot more of, or just a novelty, is still up for debate. However, we have seen it in two of the biggest films of the last year and both characters played a key part in the narrative of both films. It’s not easy to get right though and the success of the decision in both these films is debatable. Terri discussed how it’s the small details that can easily create a disconnect between the audience and the character, seemingly working better in films where the character has less to do.

When it comes to other CGI characters, Terri is a huge believer in the need for humans for be involved in these roles, arguing: “I think you’ll always need human beings to be actors as long as you need human beings”. Over the past decade and a half, motion capture has become a staple part of any visual effects studio, whether they're working on films, TV, or video games. However, human beings haven’t been taken out of the equation. The reality is, there’s still something about humanity and how you tell stories and characterisation. People want to see human creative expression and what is working well is blending these two worlds together.

As a filmmaker, you want to excite and delight and the development of technology is just part of this. There has to be a why and motivation for everything that happens, otherwise people won’t buy it.

Now, more than any time in the last couple of decades, there’s a real appetite for practical effects. Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk, one of the biggest films of this year, used mostly practical effects and it’s a large part of what gave it such power and immediacy.

Both Tom and Terri had high praise for English film actor and director, Andy Serkis, with Tom stating: “He seems to be the only person who has really nailed the emotions behind these CGI characters. He’s the guy who’s brought on to do these big pictures – in America they’ve got Terry Notary, but I don’t think he does the level of emotion that Andy Serkis does. Serkis is an incredible actor who’s got this special skill”.

Guillermo del Toro is a filmmaker who expertly blends real life and motion capture technology. He takes fantasy to a whole new place, using the tools at his disposal, blending them in a compelling way to tell beautiful stories. James Cameron is another director who has made incredible use of this technology and we’ll see it a lot more in the four Avatar sequels. However, the technical leap he’s aiming to make with the sequels is to deliver 3D imagery which doesn’t require 3D glasses and it’s a hugely exciting prospect.

Although CGI is becoming more apparent in cinema, there is still a strong desire to see authentic, human experiences represented on screen. Terri believes we are going to see a return to those traditional tenets of storytelling. As our real world becomes more apocalyptic, people seek ever more solace in the amazing, immersive cinema space. It provides an escape and it’s a safe haven. And the actors on-screen provide the entertainment.

So, who or what are the actors of the future? Well, they’re actors.

Digital Cinema Media