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With Hollywood's Advanced Digital Face-Lifting, Do We Even Need Actors?


If I say the acronym CGI to you, it probably conjures up images of impossible fantasy - the blue aliens of "Avatar," Spiderman scaling a building, a fictional nuclear explosion perhaps. But these days, digital enhancement is done in places you might not expect - faces and bodies themselves. How else do you think Pee-wee Herman remains ageless in that playhouse? Reporter Logan Hill dug into the bizarre world of digital manipulation for New York magazine, and he told us just how deep it goes.

LOGAN HILL: You know, I'd known about certain things, like the idea that could remove wrinkles from someone's eyes. I didn't know that you could actually replace their eyes with somebody else's eyes, delete their blinks, change their expression, animate their mouth so they're speaking different words when you want to rewrite the script after the fact.

Now you can make someone slimmer, stronger, give them bigger muscles, stitch their chest onto somebody else's legs, replace a body part, cover up a pregnant belly - it just goes on. And literally the options are nearly endless.

MARTIN: Wow. One example of this that stood to me is the idea of reverse Botox, right? Like, there are now so many actors and actresses who just get plastic surgery or Botox in their life and it actually makes their faces more static and not as dynamic as studios want them to be. And so they use CGI to actually make them look more normal.

HILL: Exactly, and it's ironic because some of the biggest companies that do this digital retouching work actually learned their techniques by hiring plastic surgeons, bringing them into their offices and working with their visual effects artists to learn how to do digital face-lifts and dermabrasions, the same kind of techniques that plastic surgeons use.

MARTIN: So why do we need these people anymore, actors, if we can make them however we want them to look on the screen? And you're telling me that CGI can actually change their acting ability, right? Like, if someone didn't emote properly in a scene, you're telling me CGI can get them to be, you know, a little sadder in one moment or display some more nuanced expression of angst.

HILL: Well, one thing I'd say is actors have always, you know, done all kinds of different takes that are edited together in the final film. And so, you know, performances have always been stitched together. There's just a level of control that never existed before. Right now I'd say one reason that actors are still going to be in business is they're still cheaper than CGI. It's really hard to be human, and I think they're better at being human than computer programs for now.

But the creepiness kind of comes in when I watch an online tutorial of a VFX artist changing an actress' smile and saying, well, see, now I've edited her smile and replaced her mouth with another mouth, and now it looks more genuine, doesn't it?

MARTIN: Weird.

HILL: And I look at that final product and I say, actually it does.


HILL: That was one of the most unsettling moments of reporting this whole story.

MARTIN: You're like, yes, I'm in. I support this manipulation of this woman's emotion. So this must mean that acting contracts are way more complicated than they used to be, right? Like, if you're talking about ways that actors have to protect their image, I mean, CGI just opens up a whole other Pandora's box.

HILL: Yeah, I talked to a couple of attorneys and they're really struggling with this. Now when you've got a digital double of somebody and these digital doubles, three years ago they looked rubbery and waxy in "Spider-Man" and things like that. Now you can get up real close to them and they look very, very realistic in dialogue. Those digital doubles that you often have seen and not even known you were looking at can then be used in other films.

And so now the question is once that software's there, once your body, once your movements, once your intonations are in the machine, who controls how those are used? I had one actress say, you know, I'll be disturbed if 20 years from now I end up in pornography not even knowing it. Like, who knows what's going to happen with my bits?

MARTIN: Logan Hill is a reporter for New York magazine, Hey, Logan, thanks so much.

HILL: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.