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
The dinosaurs that looked all too real in Jurassic Park have
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
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
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-
actors are "definitely something we're very interested and concerned
But for now, Perkins says, it still costs too much to create a
"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. …