As Always, Life Imitates Arthur C. Clarke

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"DAWN OF THE DIGITAL ACTOR -- STUDIOS SCAN BODIES," the headline atop the Drudge Report screamed this morning, linking to this Hollywood Reporter article on Fast & Furious 7, and the filmmakers' efforts to digitally replace star Paul Walker, who died (in grimly ironic fashion, alas) in a sports car accident midway during the production of the film:

No actor is indispensable. That is the blunt lesson from the fact that Universal Pictures was able to complete its April 3 tentpole, Furious 7, following star Paul Walker's death in a November 2013 car accident about halfway through the shoot. Beyond saying that brothers Cody and Caleb stood in for Walker and that director James Wan culled footage of Walker from the earlier films, Universal declines to discuss which tricks were employed to breathe life into Walker's character. But sources say Peter Jackson's Weta Digital was asked to complete the sensitive and arduous task of reanimating Walker for Furious 7, and its cutting-edge work points toward a future where most actors can be re-created seam­lessly if needed. (The company declined to com­ment on its specific contributions.)

Read on in the Hollywood Reporter for additional examples of Hollywood reanimating deceased actors. One man who wouldn't be at all surprised at these techniques is the late Arthur C. Clarke, as we'll explore right after the digital page break.

Almost 30 years ago, Clarke predicted such techniques in the chapter of his book Arthur C. Clarke's July 20, 2019: Life in the 21st Century titled "A Night at the Movies." He also got right that HDTV would cut into movie theater profits, the price of a ticket would rise to "$12 to $15 in major markets, perhaps even more for films whose budgets will approach those of a small emerging nation," and other glimpses into Hollywood's future:

One aspect of the movies that won't change in the next century is subject matter. There is no reason to believe that the traditional film genres won't be as popular forty years from now as they were in the 1930s and 1940s. Love stories, science fiction, teenage comedies, war films, sweeping adventures, and rugged Westerns will be among the most successful movies of 2019. [On this, Clarke was slightly off; if only today's Hollywood proffered that much variety. -- Ed]

However, new technologies will make possible a different approach to the traditional themes. Computer-graphic techniques will enable producers to re-create electronically the voices and physical appearances of great movie stars from the past A new movie featuring a cast of Hollywood hall-of-famers -- Jimmy Stewart, Greta Garbo, John Wayne, Marilyn Monroe -- isn't just possible, it is probable once computer synthesis techniques are perfected.

Computer graphics hold myriad implications for the movies of the twenty-first century It will be more practical and cost effective to design sets and synthesize almost any location on Earth or off using computers. Special effects that now require models and miniatures can be replaced by digital picture-making. Animation, once the most visually exciting area of film, today has, except for an occasional Disney film, almost vanished. Computer graphics will cut the cost of animation in the next century, and cartoons featuring solid-looking, three-dimensional characters will breathe new life into this art form.

See also: Pixar. It will be curious to see if reconstituted synthetic stars make a foothold in the industry, considering Hollywood in the post-9/11 era has done everything it can to replace the temperamental movie star with the (sometimes) more reliable franchise. Perhaps if the old stars can be reborn, the audiences will turn out again as well.

One area, though, in which Hollywood may have reached an impasse is 3D; as Kyle Smith writes in the New York Post, "The 3-D fad is dying — and this film critic couldn’t be happier."

If people really preferred to see movies in 3-D, we’d all have 3-D TVs by now. Do you know a single person who has one? As recently as 2012, 3-D TV was said to be the next big must-have gizmo. Now it’s already a joke. The manufacturers are now pushing smart TVs (which actually are worth the extra $50 or $100) and 4K super-duper high-def (call me skeptical on the necessity of that, at least for now).

Sure, 3-D movies will struggle on for a few more years, but theater owners aren’t stupid. When the rooms showing the 3-D versions are mostly empty and the ones showing the 2-D print are just about full, they’ll put 2-D films in both.

Goodbye, 3-D movies. At least you outlasted Sensurround and Smell-O-Vision.

Heh. Sensurround at least was the launching pad for 5.1 surround sound -- as any home theater enthusiast knows, the .1 indicates the bass-crunching subwoofer, which is what Sensurround cranked out in abundance. A decade after Sensurround's emergence as a gimmick by Universal, big rumbling bass was simply rolled into the surround sound matrix. Perhaps in time 3d will become as transparent a technology. But for now, like Kyle, I much prefer my movie (and TV) watching in good ol' 2d, whether the actors are real and wooden or synthetic and digital.