Virtual actors: Cheaper, better, faster than humans?

Hollywood is getting downright creepy.Ed Sullivan is back from the dead on a remake of his TV variety show.
Written by Robert Lemos, Contributor
Hollywood is getting downright creepy.

Ed Sullivan is back from the dead on a remake of his TV variety show. Movies like Titanic are using virtual extras instead of actors to populate scenes and perform deadly stunts. And John Wayne and Fred Astaire, or at least the computer-enhanced images of the deceased stars, are starring in commercials.

The new technology -- called digital cloning -- has Hollywood scrambling to come to grips with its promise to both enhance and obsolete today's human actors.

The goal of digital cloning?
"A Mikey that won't age, a Mr. Whipple that won't die," said Jeffrey Lotman, CEO of actor promotion firm Global Icons and founder of digital cloner Virtual Celebrity Productions.

'This is a new frontier and people are worried about what will happen in the future.'
--Katherine Moore, Screen Actor's Guild

The computer cloning company showed off technology in New York last week that can take an actor's image and seamlessly paste it over a live person to give the illusion that the actor is actually on screen. During the demo, Virtual Celebrity Productions seemingly brought W.C. Fields back to life.

Starting Tuesday, representatives of Hollywood and the high-tech industry will meet at the Virtual Humans Conference in Los Angeles to discuss the fate of actors -- both live and dead -- in the digital era.

Hello Dolly!
The industry is worried over the use, and misuse, of digital representations of actors, everything from photos on the Internet to 3-D full-body models that, in the computer world at least, allow the actor to be cloned.

"This is a new frontier and people are worried about what will happen in the future," said Katherine Moore, spokeswoman for the Screen Actor's Guild. "Everytime new technology comes along, there is fear."

What do you think of those Fred Astaire and John Wayne commercials? Add your comments to the bottom of this page.

Extras fear that the virtual-human technology, which can turn three people into a crowd of 3 million, could put them out of a job. Stuntmen worry as well that more realistic digital stunts might mean less work.

"There isn't enough work for our members today," said SAG's Moore. The organization hopes digital technology will increase jobs and media outlets for its members, rather than make humans obsolete.

Digital disrespect
For leading men and ladies of the silver screen, the problems posed by digitization are different, but no less threatening.

"Third-party use of actor's image without permission is at the heart of the problem," said Joseph Beard, a professor of law at St. John's University in New York City. "It's a kind of digital kidnapping."

Well-known actors frequently find their images used in ways they would never condone and the Internet serves to make matters worse. The most common form of such "digital kidnapping" is taking an actor's image, pasting it onto a pornographic image, and posting it on the Net.

On to PART II -- Actor Alyssa Milano's manager and mom Lin started a company to fight such uses of actors' images.

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