Should advertisers ever bring dead celebrities back to life?
The Drum speaks to the creatives behind the digital resurrections of Audrey Hepburn and Bruce Lee to learn whether dead icons can serve as a feasible replacement for wayward influencers and dull brand ambassadors.
Can our very essence be bottled and reproduced by a visual effects lab after we die? It is a notion entertainment houses and agencies are rallying behind in the hope the deceased personalities that helped form our cultural heritage will bring to the bank brand recognition and that neurological opiate, nostalgia.
While the Grim Reaper embarked on an apparent cull of beloved stars too long to list in 2006, Disney swam against the tide and rocked movie-going audiences by having actor Peter Cushing reprise his role as the villainous Grand Moth Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Cushing's 1994 death was but a minor inconvenience – CGI and motion capture technology helped deliver an eerily close approximation of Tarkin.
Blasted by the Guardian “as a digital indignity”, the divisive performance was preceded by less-nuanced resurrections in Fast and Furious 7 (Paul Walker), Gladiator (Oliver Reed), Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (Laurence Olivier) and Superman Returns (Marlon Brando), performances that helped prepare consumers for a future where death is not a curtain call for the famous and influential.
As the entertainment industry relies more and more on advanced digital techniques to resurrect, transpose or de-age faces, marketers have asked themselves: ‘If Hollywood’s bringing back iconic figures, why can’t we?’.
With some of today's influencers proving too hot to handle (see PewDiePie and Jake Paul), is the next step a sanitised restoration of our favourite famous faces? Are we about to enter the age of the CGI dead ambassador?
Audrey Hepburn, 1929-1993 (reanimated by Galaxy, 2013)
For Galaxy’s Audrey Hepburn ad in 2013, ad agency AMV BBDO took the bold step of creating new footage of the star – veering away from the copy/paste jobs of existing footage which the likes of Pizza Hut (Elvis), Ford Puma (Steve McQueen) and Volkswagen (Gene Kelly) had adopted previously.
William Bartlett, a visual effects supervisor at UK VFX company Framestore, oversaw the process. Building the computer-generated model of Hepburn’s face proved to be a “very slow and tedious process,” he says, as Framestore could only use old photographs for reference. Bartlett and team thought they could speed up the process by visiting an Audrey Hepburn model at Madame Tussauds, but the likeness wasn't quite fit for purpose. “We were trying to find high resolution images, but they’re taken from a wide range of her life, and we didn’t have any information as to what lens and angles were used to take the pictures.”
A composite was built, but it was not close enough for the perfectionist Bartlett, because Hepburn's real imperfections were absent from the work. “We assumed that she was such a glamourous and beautiful woman that her face would be asymmetrical, but actually the more we got into it, there’s a little twist on her nose and one eye is slightly close to the center than the other.”
While this painstaking process grinded on, the commercial was shot in Italy with two actresses trying to bring Hepburn's unique stage presence to life. “We then put the facial model onto the actress and we thought we were on the home straight," Bartlett says. But there was a hitch. "They both went together… and it didn’t look like her, it was quite a bizarre thing. It worked in freeze frame but in motion, it just didn’t seem like her. We needed the nuance of her performance.
“You’re so tuned into the personality of film stars that if that performance is different, it won’t seem like the person. The actress acted as much like Audrey as she could but we were surprised at how accurate that had to be. What we had at that time was not close enough, we had to add small animations.”
Another point of contention was Hepburn’s estate. Understandably, they would only sign off work that was pleasing, and so there was a real risk that the estate could veto the ad at the final sign-off stage. “We were doing something that was authentic to her and not a technical exercise. It was a tribute, it had to feel appropriate. Her sons clearly liked it enough to sign it off.”
Once the ad landed, Bartlett was hit with a mixed reaction. "People discussed whether it was appropriate, the beginning of the end of authenticity. I wouldn’t say it was perfect but it felt like a significant step forward. For me, because people were asking the ethical questions, it was enough of a step forward around the believability of it.”
"Meryl Streep won three Oscars not because of how she looks but because of how she performs"
The lesson here is that bringing a departed celebrity back to life is not merely a technical challenge to be overcome with VFX software – it requires real, physical acting talent. As Bartlett says: "We can create a physical likeness and map it like digital makeup onto another actresses’ performance. But in the end, the reason Meryl Streep won three Oscars is not because of how she looks but because of how she performs. The details and nuance and empathy in her work makes her a great actress. If you recreate her face and stick it on another actress, you do not get a Meryl Streep performance, you get someone else wearing Meryl Streep’s face.
“It is obviously a complicated and expensive process and it’s all down to the performance, which made these people famous in the first place. You don’t get that for free. It’s very difficult to find an authentic performance.”
Bruce Lee, 1940-1973 (reanimated by Johnnie Walker, 2013)
At about the same time the Galaxy ad was coming together, Johnny Tan, BBH China's executive creative director, was overseeing ‘Change the Game’, a Johnnie Walker campaign looking to recreate cultural icon Bruce Lee. It was a process that lasted almost a year “to meticulously craft in a way that shows the utmost reverence," Tan says.
The team at VFX studio The Mill studied Lee’s filmography to determine, as Tan puts it, “his physicality, muscular structure, the way he moved, spoke and all the micro-movements, involuntary movements/mannerisms the person may not even know existed, every twitch and every scar". It was also important not to create a disrespectful approximation of him reliant upon stereotypical Kung Fu moves and high pitch shrieks.
One advantage The Mill had over Framestore was that it had a Bruce Lee face mould, created while he worked on the set of Green Hornet. Additionally, Lee’s daughter Shannon helped add authenticity to the proceedings in an advisory role while a sculptor with a computer “built facial bone structure and muscular structure," Tan recalls. "Blood, fat, skin and hair followed, these were tedious, but critically essential steps.”
The team were instructed that Lee was not to resemble a plastic mannequin or video game-like character. The work also had to sidestep the uncanny valley sensation that gives viewers goosebumps – and to do this the lighting had to be just right. There was a particularly difficult scene to capture in which Lee tilted his head up to look into the camera. It just didn't look natural. The designers were tied up in knots by the problem until they eventually had an epiphany: doing this motion in real life would make a person’s irises contract and the eyelids twitch as the muscles adjust to sudden influx of light into the eyes. The insight made them realise that they needed to give their Bruce Lee a little glint in his eyes to make him feel real.
Further aiding the strive for realism was the acting talent in the form of Danny Chan, a famed actor and Bruce Lee impersonator. Tan brands Chan's efforts “a labour of love to bring to life the most authentic version of Bruce". But not everything about the ad was truly authentic. One regret Tan has now is not airing the ad in Lee's native Cantonese.
Following its release in 2013, there was a backlash from some Bruce Lee fans – not least because Lee was teetotal. As Tan acknowledges, the martial artist and actor did not drink alcohol as he deemed it “bad for [his] body". Of the reaction the ad sparked, Tan says: “There were people who were inspired by the film and marveled at the what we had done and then there were people who thought we committed blasphemy.
“However, the feedback that mattered most to us was the opinion of the Lee family. It was critical for us to do right by them. We knew right from the start that we were not going to please everyone out there, particularly some of the fans who were upset that he was 'endorsing' an alcohol brand when he never drank.
“Our purpose was never to have him hawk a product, especially when it was for a whisky brand. When we first started the conversation, we had a common goal and that was to pass on Bruce's ‘Walk On' philosophy to the next generation... to inspire them.”
Tan argues that the team were looking to do “something fairly game-changing… naturally, when you try to push the boundaries, some people will agree with you and some people won’t. It was important for all of us to be clear and true to our purpose. I believe we’ve done that.”
On whether it's wise for other brands to follow in his footsteps and work with dead icons, Tan says: “One must be aware that each ambassador is a brand with distinctive values. It is essential to be authentic and respectful towards that brand and avoid caricaturing the characters. On any project that uses such ambassadors, one should ask if their projects can help build both their ‘brands’ as well as that of the ambassador’s. If it can’t be done in a respectful and mutually beneficial way, then avoid it."
"Park the usual marketing playbook"
Advancement in technology has afforded greater means for storytelling, so it’s inevitable more brands would use deceased influencers, Tan says. It’s a new frontier and there's a long way to go to perfect it, but it’s no longer a question of whether one can successfully bring a deceased ambassador back to life, "it’s a question of whether one should".
"There’s no handbook on this and certainly not one that defines what is ethical," Tan says. "I fervently believe that if it were to be done, it has to be done collectively with the family and estate towards celebrating the deceased individual's legacy, spirit and values. It has to be done with that kind of respect or it wouldn’t be right. Park the usual marketing playbook. Focus on telling a compelling story through these legends.”
Simon Robinson, co-founder and chief scientist at visual effects software company the Foundry says that although VFX technology is now at the stage where we can resurrect dead influencers and ambassadors, it’s going to cost considerably more than hiring a living influencer.
“Digital facial performance capture and rendering requires a great deal of specialist expertise and it is very expensive,” says Robinson, although modern tech is making it more accessible. Driving this is “an appetite for digital resurrection, which has pushed the industry to overcome more technical challenges and streamline the technology within a very short space of time”.
However, “audiences are still largely unaccustomed” to these resurrections. The more accurate they become, the more unsettling the audience tends to find it, he adds. Imagining a future in which it's more commonplace to resurrect ambassadors, Robinson believes living actors may want to record their digital profile for posthumous appearances.
Jason Barrett, founder of influencer marketing agency Social Talent, weighs up the pros and cons of living vs resurrected ambassadors, and states that influencers bring “emotional connection” to the table, meaning content is less of a broadcast and more of a conversation.
On where the industry is going, he concedes that brands are often “attracted by the shiny new thing" and tech-produced performances will appeal, but warns: “Maybe authenticity can’t be arranged like this and people will be waiting for the brand message and just automatically turn off to it, regardless of the creativity involved.”
He doubts Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Frank Sinatra and the endless trove of culturally cherished icons will be returning to screens with fully nuanced performances but caveated that with the acknowledgement that technology moves quickly and it “becomes a part of the fabric of our lives and the lines blur between reality and CGI”.
So are resurrections a feasible option for marketers or will living, breathing influencers and celebrities continue to rule the roost in ad campaigns? Consumers are likely to be hypersensitive to the post-mortem selling-out of their cultural icons if not handled sensitively. Furthermore, while CGI can deliver an approximation of a star, it takes real talent, capital and time to emulate their magic. And if that was so easily bottled, it wouldn't be special.