Computer-Generated Actors Now Populate Films

Article excerpt

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. -- It will hardly knock movie stars off the silver screen, but animators are creating computer-generated humans who are becoming actors in their own right.

These so-called "synthespians" are increasingly popping up in films, threatening to displace already meagerly paid extras as the technology becomes less expensive than salaries for real live people.

The dinosaurs that looked all too real in Jurassic Park have given way to a 40-foot gorilla with personality in Mighty Joe Young. And he's setting the stage for a realistic looking Frankenstein monster in the first totally digital, photo-realistic feature film ever, expected to be released by Universal Pictures sometime late next year. Everything about it, from the environment to the characters, will have a surreal quality that can't be filmed using traditional animation or real people. "The question is, will these people who have become (computer- generated) featured extras become stars?" asks Larry Kasanoff, a producer who also heads Threshold Digital Research Labs, a special effects company in Los Angeles. "Yes. We're in the movie business. There are no weird moral dilemmas." Kasanoff's Beowulf, due later this year, features a realistic looking digital seductress interacting with a live actor in a supporting role. So far, the most famous animated "stars" have come from San Rafael-based Industrial Light & Magic, where a Star Wars storm trooper and Darth Vader watch over the reception desk. Today, animators are hard at work on the eagerly awaited Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace. But ILM designers are working on improving digital humans, too. The evolving technology has become so popular that at ILM, 450 artists create computer-generated characters, compared to just four artists 10 years ago. "We have fake actors, generally called synthespians," says Carl Frederick, ILM's associate visual effects supervisor. These synthespians, often used in stunts or crowd scenes, aren't meant to be computer-generated stars. But eventually someone is bound to create a synthespian who will become a digital screen idol. It even has the Screen Actors Guild worried. Despite assurances that no digital human could replace a Robin Williams, Will Smith or Gwyneth Paltrow, SAG spokesman Rafe Greenlee says computer- generated actors are "definitely something we're very interested and concerned about." But for now, Perkins says, it still costs too much to create a digital star. "You can hire one person to act or you could hire a crew of 20 to 50 to create this one performance. It's always going to be cheaper to hire one person to do it right then and there," he says. For big crowd scenes, though, computer technology can be cost- efficient, Kasanoff says. …