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So Real They're Virtual

[whitespace] Virtual Celebrities
W.C. Headroom: The dearly departed can now survive as digital icons.

Celebrities can live on in ads ad infinitum thanks to the latest digital technology

By Zack Stentz

I HAVE SEEN the future of television, and it looks like Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner--forever. At a two-day conference held this summer on the grounds of Universal Studios, movers and shakers in the computer, entertainment and legal industries got together to discuss the prospects of using digital technology to create "virtual humans": photorealistic simulations of human beings either created from scratch or modeled on personas living or dead.

And what grandiose plans are the backers of this new technology that will take television and film boldly into the 21st century hatching? "Imagine," Jeffrey Lotman, CEO of Global Icons, says, "a Mikey who never ages, a Mr. Whipple who never dies."

Yes, the digital revolution will create a legion of immortal pitchmen. But why use some anonymous schmo to sell cereal and toilet tissue when a roster of the biggest stars (or rather, their estates) of yesteryear are perfectly willing to shill for whatever corporate sponsor pays the royalty?

A major goal of the participants at the conference was to create realistic simulations of dead celebrities. Indeed, Global Icons' sister company, Virtual Celebrity, has already sewn up the digital rights to numerous famous visages: Sammy Davis Jr., George Burns, Gracie Allen and others.

Of course, the living as well as the dead (and possibly the Dead) can get in on the act too. "So if you had the rights to a Michael Jordan," Lotman continues, "you might not need him to appear personally at every promotional event or in each commercial. You can use his digital clone instead."

TO SOME extent, we've already seen the crude outlines of this technological future on television. In the last few years, the Nanny has met Lucille Ball, Hank Williams Jr. and Sr. have sung and horsed around together in a music video, and Deep Space Nine's Capt. Sisko went back in time to save Capt. James T. Kirk from an exploding Tribble, all through the wonders of digital trickery.

But those examples--like the Astaire-cum-vacuum ad--all relied on inserting contemporary actors into archival footage, Forrest Gump-style, and were limited by their reliance on existing footage. In contrast, a true virtual human would be a computer-generated simulation of a person that could be made to appear in entirely new scenarios.

To prove the point, the animators at Sherer Digital Animation displayed a digital W.C. Fields that could respond to questions from a live audience, thanks to a Wizard of Oz-like hidden operator controlling his voice and movements. The simulation still isn't photorealistically perfect, but with the animation techniques improving by the week, it won't be long before a virtual celebrity could be pressed into service and mistaken for the real McCoy.

"The upside of this [technology] is the potential to get people my children's age introduced to the legends," says Ronald Fields, an Aptos-based writer and teacher at UC-Santa Cruz whose broad forehead and prominent nose immediately bring to mind his grandfather, W.C.

Fields is currently helping to develop an interactive golf game that prominently features the image of Fields pére as a character. But although Fields the younger looks forward to seeing future projects that make use of his grandfather (the royalties such enterprises would earn can't hurt, either), he has concerns about the new technology as well.

"There is a danger that some of the new projects will cheapen what they've done," Fields says, "especially if you're doing it just because the technology exists--and not because you have a good story. The creativity has to lead the technology."

Farther down the road, developers envision combining photorealistic graphics with artificial intelligence programs that are also able to simulate the personality of a particular celebrity, eliminating the need for human operators and Rich Little-like vocal impersonations.

"My goal," says Peter Riva, the grandson of Marlene Dietrich, "is to take everything we know about Marlene and create a computer playbook, then put that into a 'paint tube' for future artists to use in creating new works of art."

RIVA, HOWEVER, is getting ahead of himself here. The contrast between the future promise and the current reality of virtual humans technology reminds me of my first encounter with the Internet back in the early 1990s, when my grandiose notion of communicating with like-minded intellects around the globe was deflated by the realization that 80 percent of the online messages amounted to some 16-year-old writing, "Led Zep rools!"

Still, there are some very real applications for the current state of the art in virtual-humans technology. The game designers at Interplay are currently putting the finishing touches on Star Trek: Secret of Vulcan Fury, which combines new voiceovers from Shatner, Nimoy and company with computer-animated models of the actors in their 1960s prime. In essence, the game designers have used digital technology to create a new episode of the classic series.

"The game looks great," George "Sulu" Takei, who lent his mellifluous baritone to the proceedings, says. "But it's a bit disconcerting to see my present-day voice matched up with a younger version of myself."

Trekkies aside, one can also picture these tools being used to de-age Harrison Ford for an endless series of Indiana Jones sequels, restore scenes from lost movie masterpieces like Greed and even bring poor River Phoenix back from the dead to complete his final film, Dark Blood.

But let's get real for a moment. Is there truly a huge, pent-up demand out there for new performances by Marlene Dietrich and W.C. Fields? In an age when even the august American Film Institute doesn't see fit to include Buster Keaton on its 100-best list, one can be sure that the teens and young adults who make up America's core movie-going audience aren't particularly interested in the artistry of a bunch of dead stars from the black-and-white era.

For the foreseeable future, at least, the uses for virtual celebrities seem fairly limited: selling products, making cameo appearances on shows during sweeps week and appearing in Celebrity Deathmatch-type scenarios (one producer is trying to put together a Rat Pack-themed series with a virtual cast).

"I don't see them as competing with real actors," says Richard Masur, head of the Screen Actors Guild, who already has enough challenges keeping his living constituents employed without having to worry about the dead ones rising from the grave, hungry for product endorsements and three-picture deals.

"Take Marlene Dietrich," he says. "What made her so special is not just how she looked, but this amazing combination of incredible strength and utter vulnerability that she projected. And I just don't see someone being able to replicate that on a computer."

Perhaps. But with graphics capability and processing power continuing to grow and grow, it seems foolish to discount entirely the notion of digital revenants that simulate the personalities as well as appearances of dead celebrities. And even if this goal is achieved, television producers of the future might get more than they bargain for when they create the first truly lifelike virtual celebrities. We'll know that bridge has been crossed the day the first computer-generated star stalks off to her digital trailer in a virtual snit.

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From the September 3-9, 1998 issue of Metro.

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