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In the Age of CG actors, Why Should Hollywood Stars Put Crews at Risk of Coronavirus?

(Article first published in Medium.com, July 2020)

From September, Tom Cruise will be among those exempt from a 14-day quarantine upon entering the UK. But with VFX more than able to carry the load nowadays, why is the safest solution being ignored?

Image source: Pexels.com

While fears of a Coronavirus second wave loom in the UK, it looks as though a certain breed of Hollywood A-lister will be immune from even the most basic of quarantine rules in the name of “kickstart[ing] film production in the UK”. Yet as productions such as Tom Cruise’s latest Mission Impossible instalments prepare to restart shooting in September, I can’t help but think that if blockbusters have shown us one thing over the years, it’s that in exceptional circumstances, computers can paper over the cracks. So why is the solution being ignored in favour of blindly soldiering on?

Culture secretary Oliver Dowden has reportedly spoken directly with Cruise to conclude that “exempting small numbers of essential cast and crew from quarantine” is part of the government’s plan to help the film industry, which has taken a beating in recent months, to “bounce back”. Yet, while I’m not about to try to stop the production and distribution of blockbuster films — a steady diet of which I have consumed while on furlough — the question needs to be asked as to who constitutes ‘essential’ cast and crew in the digital age.

When reporting on the full-body scanning of Josh Brolin for Avengers: Endgame in a 2018 Vulture article, Chris Lee stumbled upon what he dubbed “Hollywood’s worst kept secret”: the practice of digitally replicating actors before shooting has even started, most commonly used to graft the face of a star onto the body of their stunt double or to replicate an actor’s long-lost muscular physique in reshoots of scenes months after principal photography has wrapped. Yet Disney is leading the charge when it comes to ushering in a new age of filmmaking in which CGI not only provides a quick fix to a split-second shot, but also entire performances by actors either too old to reprise their old parts or even deceased altogether.

Most notable was their re-animation of Peter Cushing as Governor Tarkin in Rogue One, in which archive footage of the late Carrie Fisher was also placed atop the face of a stand-in of similar physique so that she could portray Princess Leia as if not a day had passed since 1977’s A New Hope. While these weren’t quite achieved in the same fashion as Brolin’s Thanos, they do prove one thing: Despite what a pernickety few say, we are now firmly in the age of convincing computer generated doppelgängers. Amongst those who seem to consider this to be the case is the family of the late James Dean, who has given permission for his likeness to appear as the secondary lead in the upcoming film Finding Jack. According to the filmmakers, they consider it his “fourth movie”. Perhaps Cruise, then, isn’t so essential that he couldn’t spend a mere two weeks self-isolating after all.

A Zbrush Sculpt of Gran Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) by Richie Ablaza

Look, I know that Tom Cruise running up and down a closed off street somewhere in London, alongside a handful of crew members, isn’t exactly going to have catastrophic effects on our Coronavirus figures, but my reasons for contestation are two-fold: Firstly, let’s stop having one rule for the mega-wealthy and another for everybody else. Secondly, let us return to Dowden’s reasoning for the exception.

“[This] is part of our continued commitment to getting cameras rolling safely again,” he says. “This is welcome news not just for film lovers but the thousands employed across the screen industries and the sectors it supports.” Now consider this: according to Huw Evans, VFX Supervisor on Mission Impossible: Fallout, the on-set team was only around 5 people. And while more get to work once the shots are in the can, it’s not for a while. Contrast that with Ang Lee’s recent Gemini Man, which required a team of 500 artists across 6 studios on top of the usual numbers to recreate 23-year old Will Smith, and you have to ask yourself if foregoing the CGI route is not actually costing hundreds of jobs; jobs that are far easier to carry out remotely too, and for which the median age is 31. Meanwhile, Cruise is 58 — a figure you can basically multiply by 100 million to arrive at his reported net worth in dollars.

But the cost, Louis! You haven’t considered the cost! Well, actually I have. According to Glassdoor, the average salary of a Hollywood 3D digital composite artist is $69,000. Times that by 500 and I’ll admit that the figure stands pretty huge at $34.5 million. Yet it pales in comparison to Cruise’s reported fee of $75 million for Fallout. In other words, a fully CGI Tom Cruise could theoretically work out at half the cost of the real thing. I suppose the gamble would be whether that would leave you enough for the deluge of legal fees to follow. Such an enormous difference in cost is perhaps why Cruise seems to be so frightened of digital mapping technology. After he had his full body scanned for Oblivion, Cruise apparently had all of the data hand-delivered to his house and all the other copies destroyed.

There is evidence to support though that, far from being driven by fear of replacement, Cruise and his team simply don’t have the same faith in the technology as the rest of us. He initially ruled out the use of CGI in the upcoming Top Gun sequel, as did he and Fallout director Chris McQuarrie for Henry Cavill’s moustache when it was proposed he shave it off for coinciding Justice League reshoots. “A fake-moustache in close-up on a 75mm lens is never going to look like anything but a fake moustache,” said McQuarrie. The resulting workaround by artists on the latter film was mocked by basically everyone, until Cats came along and showed the world just what a real CGI disaster looks like.

It would also explain the 58 year old’s insistence to keep doing his own stunts, even after breaking his ankle during the filming of Fallout. Incidentally, the injury forced an eight-week hiatus on filming; a fact that makes Cruise’s pushback against a simple two-week quarantine period during a global pandemic a little hard to swallow. A loss of 14 days is hardly going to set the production back by a maximum of 15 minutes worth of final footage. An amount of time which even primitive CGI can handle, as DreamWorks showed us when Oliver Reed passed away before filming had wrapped on his part in Gladiator all the way back in 2000.

Whatever his motives — Whether he really is untrusting of CG technology or he’s worried about having his likeness remodelled without his permission — it appears he’s more worried about his own ego than he is about protecting those around him. It seems a cool story to tell on The Graham Norton show is worth a hefty setback, but following the law like a lowly citizen in order to potentially save lives? Not worth the lost time.

Digital scans are routinely carried out on these types of blockbusters “for concerns that, in case something happens, they’ve got data of the actors to be able to create something that could maybe finish the movie.” says Darren Hendler, director of Hollywood’s leading digitisation studio. To which I ask, if Coronavirus isn’t exactly the kind of unpredictable ‘something’ that these films are insuring themselves against, then what is?

Written by Louis Cammell - Journalist & Friend of the Festival Insta: louis_cammell


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