Are Deep Fakes the Future of A-List Casting?


With Fifties’ heartbreaker James Dean predicted to be soon digitally resurrected for a new movie, will the deep fake phenomenon enter a new phase of acceptance or remain as an underground geek’s parlor game?

The extended Dean family backed it, a production company vowed to make it, and the script for Remember Jack, a story of missing Vietnam War service dogs, was written for it.

But suddenly, the news flow from the movie stopped dead in its tracks; even Hollywood started thinking that this type of star reanimation was a bit tacky. Yet the phenomenon of deep fakes still continues.

James Dean in a current-day watch ad
In 2022, James Dean—as a product or IP—is worth millions. Image courtesy of CMG

But what about Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Stars Wars Story, Oliver Reed in Gladiator, and Carrie Fisher in Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker?

Hollywood, after all, is obsessed with youth. So isn’t this digital casting or reawakening, dreadful as it seems, just another version of casting?

The Star Wars reanimations are probably the most famous examples of these revisits from dead movie stars, but the advertising world has had no such reluctance to ask people back for more. We had Fred Astaire promoting Dust Devil vacuum cleaners during a SuperBowl halftime show, and Audrey Hepburn tucking into Galaxy chocolate in a recreation of Roman Holiday.

But Carrie Fisher wasn’t the only star to return posthumously for “one last time.” How about Fast & Furious star Paul Walker who came back for the seventh movie after his tragic car accident; according to The Guardian, the studio reportedly spent an extra $50m to complete the film. Don’t forget Seymour Hoffman’s slight digital additions when he, unfortunately, died during the shooting of The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 before a pivotal scene he was due to be in was shot.

Does Hollywood Support Deep Fake Technology?

Interestingly, in 2017 Star Wars denied they would ever digitally recreate Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. Their press release said:

We don’t normally respond to fan or press speculation, but there is a rumor circulating that we would like to address. We want to assure our fans that Lucasfilm has no plans to digitally recreate Carrie Fisher’s performance as Princess or General Leia Organa.

Carrie Fisher was, is, and always will be a part of the Lucasfilm family. She was our princess, our general, and more importantly, our friend. We are still hurting from her loss. We cherish her memory and legacy as Princess Leia, and will always strive to honor everything she gave to Star Wars.

Officially, deleted footage from the filming of The Force Awakens was used to keep to their promise of no reanimation. Still, the facts get fuzzy about what happened or if there was any “fakery.”

Casting directors and agents would never admit it, but aren’t there contracts for A-listers that now include digital scanning as part of future planning? There is a rumor that Tom Cruise circa 2005 is already in the can.

Corridor Crew takes a stab at making their own deep fake to see if they can better the VFX artists at Disney.

Are Deep Fakes that bad?

Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe reflected in mirrors in a scene set in a dressing room
Ana de Armas as Marilyn Monroe in Netflix’s new Blonde. In this trailer scene, Marilyn suddenly returns to her ‘Marilyn” persona. Image courtesy of Netflix.

For people who still welcome his image as iconic, James Dean’s potential new movie is maybe nothing more than an animation of a bedroom poster.

The people who hold the rights for Marilyn Monroe might well be monitoring public opinion on the subject as Netflix releases their biopic, Blonde, with Ana de Armas in the lead role. The movie Elvis has been a huge success for rights holders fully employing their prize brand or IP. But don’t these biopics still only work on an impersonation basis? To play devil’s advocate, wouldn’t the real thing be almost like a historical document?

Blonde is a bestselling 2000 novel by Joyce Carol Oates that chronicles the personal life of Marilyn. It will make more of a star of de Armas for sure, and she is a great actress. But when deep fakes become more accepted, Marilyn herself will surely tell her own story and then potentially restart her romantic comedy career, fine-tuning her dumb blonde shtick.

Are you dead? You still have rights.

There is a rights company in Hollywood that has a roster of 200 clients or brands; the problem is most of them have died. Including Dean, other past stars in their books include Clark Gable, Bette Davis, Jack Lemon, Ingrid Bergman, Jean Harlow, Malcolm X, and David Niven.

CMG Worldwide describes its service, “Our primary goal is to protect our clients’ image and likeness and perpetuate their remarkable legacies.” The range of use cases for these rights cover mainly endorsement campaigns, from television commercials to print advertisements to special edition packaging and product cross-promotion. But, rights managers are always looking for new markets.

A sample screenshot showing CMG's deceased but still active clientele
Just a few of the 200 “brands” that CMG have on its roster. Image courtesy of CMG Worldwide.

Valuing these rights seems to be a kind of dark art. CMG has a subsidiary company called Celebrity Valuations to deal with that particularly. It’s led by industry expert Mark Roesler who is mainly known for a quote he said when concluding the OJ Simpson court case. He was an expert witness in the O.J. Simpson civil trial.

The New York Times reported, “Roesler pegged the value of the football star’s future net worth, including merchandising and publicity opportunities, at $25 million — exactly what the jury awarded the families in punitive damages.”

So, we all agree that rights management, publicity, marketing, and PR are all involved in identifying markets. That are as yet undefined; “dead celebrities” is just another one of them.

Digital Humans Are Already Here

Of course, there are two distinct types of recreation. On the one hand, you have this “Deep Fake” technology, and then there is complete CGI recreation.

With Deep Fakes, you have an AI twist to the creation of basically face swapping. Companies like Faceswap and Deep FaceLab offer free, open-source programs for you to indulge in, but it shows how easy it is for those with basic computer knowledge. You can perhaps then understand Hollywood’s determination to legitimize the practice by giving the green light to full CGI approval and saving their client’s face. However, there’s no hint of any such move at the moment.

Front page of Soul Machines' website portraying an realistic artificial human face of a Black woman
Viola is a digital person and assistant on the Soul Machines website. Image courtesy of Soul Machines.

But technology advances could, by default, make the decision for them. For example, we have ABBA’s ABBAtars performing nightly in East London. We also have companies like Soul Machines looking at the future of AI entertainment, with Robert Downey Jr and taking leading roles. Soul Machines looks at the creation of digital humans and their many purposes, including as digital assistants. You can talk to Viola on their website and ask her to help you. She’ll point you toward the best way to do that.

We’ve seen companies like Arcturus and their software that can take your volumetric video captures of humans and tune them to destinations like mobile phones or websites. There are movie-making pioneers like Neill Blomkamp, who is making films like Adam, which was created totally in a game engine.

The pull of Hollywood has always been illogical, an enchantment. But, one never to be underestimated. The technology to reanimate dead box office stars might already be here, and the decision to do it might already have been made. It could be just a matter of preparing us for its arrival.


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