Fred Astaire dancing with a vacuum cleaner was one thing. But thanks to the controversy over digital manipulation in CBS’ Nov. 13 Michael Jackson concert broadcast, many entertainment junkies are wondering: Has CGI gone too far?
Based on comparisons between footage shot at the September concerts and the final broadcast, songbirds Whitney Houston and Jackson appear to have been touched up to hide the displeasing sight of sweat, protruding collarbones, and—in the case of the erstwhile King of Pop—sunken cheeks. (CBS and reps for Houston and Jackson all declined to comment.)
That’s not the only case of computer-generated imaging that’s poking purists in the eyes. Earlier this month, the family of kung-fu star Bruce Lee—who died in 1973 of a brain edema on the set of Game of Death—approved Dragon Warrior, a $50 million action tale starring an all-CGI Lee that would become the first feature film to resurrect a deceased character in a headlining role. (Lee’s family did not return calls for comment.)
Not that resuscitating Lee will be a snap. ”Using a synthetic character is an enormous challenge,” says John Berton, visual-effects supervisor at George Lucas‘ Industrial Light & Magic. ”To make a synthetic character look like a human being is doubly enormous. Then to make it look like an understood character or image—like John Wayne or Bruce Lee—you’ve tripled the complexity.”
Aside from a high price tag and unforeseen technical challenges, a new Lee film kicks up an ethical quandary. ”I’m horrified,” says film critic Leonard Maltin. ”You’re talking about inventing a performance by somebody who’s dead. It’s eerie and inappropriate.”
And though Lee’s family might be willing to cash in on their ancestor’s likeness, would Lee have wanted it that way? Jeff Kleiser, an animator for 1982’s CGI breakthrough Tron and president of special-effects house Kleiser-Walczak, doesn’t think so. ”I suspect that in most cases an artist would say, ‘Screw the descendants! Don’t put me in something that was never part of my body of work!”’ says Kleiser, whose firm worked on X-Men and The One. ”An actor’s body of work [is] something to be pristine and protected, rather than something to be exploited.”
On the other hand, a director’s oeuvre seems more malleable. Pioneers like Lucas and Steven Spielberg have openly embraced the new technology, using CGI to enhance films old (E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial) and new (Star Wars: Episode II—Attack of the Clones) for their upcoming big-screen releases. While tweaking the 20th-anniversary version of E.T. due in theaters next March, Spielberg insisted upon a minor switch: The cops chasing E.T., Elliot, and his friends will now be holding walkie-talkies instead of guns. ”It’s the one thing that Steven really regretted,” says producer Kathleen Kennedy. ”He just thought it was inappropriate.”
And as the desire to digitally manipulate sequences grows, CGI is popping up in the unlikeliest places—though you may not even realize it. Take the feel-good French import Amélie. Director Jean-Pierre Jeunet removed cars from busy streets, erased graffiti from dingy Parisian walls, and plucked the clouds from dull, gray skies—all in the name of making, literally, a sunnier picture. ”[CGI] is happening in movies like Waking Ned Devine or Elizabeth, where they’re able to create a scene in places where you can’t put actors,” notes Berton.