Anton Ernst was dumbfounded.
It had been barely a day since news broke that the computer-generated likeness of James Dean, the generation-defining actor who died in a car crash in 1955, would star in his planned film, “Finding Jack.” Some in Hollywood denounced the move. Others accused Mr. Ernst, a producer, of using Dean, the star of “Rebel Without a Cause,” as a marketing gimmick.
“If we aren’t doing anything to hurt James Dean’s image, why are people pushing back?” asked Mr. Ernst, who will direct the movie with Tati Golykh. “I’m trying to analyze what the moral issue is here.”
The issue may be less about morality than about who owns an actor’s image. Hollywood has a complicated relationship when it comes to technology: It is good when it makes a movie better, but it is bad when it exploits actors or takes away their jobs. Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that actors were among the first to voice concern about “Finding Jack.”
Chris Evans, who has played Captain America in the Marvel franchise movies, criticized the use of Dean’s image. “This is awful,” he said on Twitter. “Maybe we can get a computer to paint us a new Picasso.” And Elijah Woods, who starred in the “Lord of The Rings” movies, wrote on Twitter: “NOPE. this shouldn’t be a thing.” (Never mind that both men starred in franchises celebrated for their use of computer-generated imagery.)
Opposition from living actors, however, has not stopped Hollywood from enhancing performances by dead ones. In 2015, filmmakers used C.G.I. technology to revive Paul Walker’s character for “Furious 7.” The actor, who had starred in the “Fast and the Furious” franchise since 2001, died in a car crash in 2013.
In 2014, The Telegraph asked, “When will C.G.I. actors replace human ones?” (It was writing about “The Congress,” a movie about studios using digitally replicated actors in place of real ones.) And some actors have even begun saving digital replicas of themselves so their characters can live on forever, M.I.T. Technology Review reported last year.
Mr. Ernst said he considered using a live actor, “but we couldn’t find the right one.”
Many actors go to great lengths to protect their image once they have died. Robin Williams, the actor and comedian who died in 2014, restricted the use of his image in publicity for 25 years after his death, according to the actor’s legal documents.
On Wednesday, Zelda Williams, the actor’s daughter, criticized the use of Dean’s likeness in the movie. “Publicity stunt or not, this is puppeteering the dead for their ‘clout’ alone and it sets such an awful precedent for the future of performance,” she said on Twitter.
But while Hollywood generally eschews the practice, the music industry has been using C.G.I. to recreate performances of dead musicians for years. In 1991, Natalie Cole sang a duet with her father, Nat King Cole, who had been dead since 1965. And in 2012, a hologram of Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, was featured onstage at Coachella, a music festival near Palm Springs, Calif.
People who saw it were reportedly more puzzled than upset. “The crowd had no idea what to do with the hologram,” Billboard wrote then, noting that fans looked more uneasy than pleased.
Four years ago, a plan to feature a hologram of Whitney Houston on the NBC show “The Voice” was scrapped after footage leaked online. (Houston died of an overdose in 2012.) In the leaked footage, Christina Aguilera, one of the show’s original coaches, introduced a hologram of Houston singing “I’m Every Woman.” Fans criticized it, saying the hologram looked nothing like the singer.
Houston’s family balked as well. Pat Houston, the singer’s sister-in-law and the executor of her estate, said in a statement to Entertainment Tonight that “Whitney’s legacy and her devoted fans deserve perfection. After closely viewing the performance, we decided the hologram was not ready to air.”
The family, though, did not give up on the idea. And in May, it announced a concert featuring Houston as a hologram, with recordings of her vocals backed by a live band. The show, created by Base Hologram, followed other events that featured dead singers, including Roy Orbison, Buddy Holly and Maria Callas.
Mr. Ernst said he bought the rights to use Dean’s image and would use old footage of the actor, as well as computer-generated images. Dean’s voice, though, is being recorded by another actor. “That’s where we drew the line,” he said.
Preproduction for the movie will begin this month. “I’m a little dumbfounded with this level of resentment,” the director said. “We love actors. But if it is appropriate and we can do it respectfully, why is it a big deal?”
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