Arts: Dead stars walking

`Forget Tom Cruise, get me Clark Gable!' Death used to finish a star's career, but not any more.

If everything goes according to plan, Marlene Dietrich could win her first Oscar in 2002. Purists may wonder how this is possible - after all, she's been dead since 1992. But Jeff Goldman, the 38-year-old head of Virtual Celebrity Productions (VCP), has the technology to rebuild her career.

Five years ago, Goldman was the Chief Executive Officer of a food company worth $2.5bn - but a chance thought, after seeing Forrest Gump in a Philadelphia cinema, led to a radical change of direction. He was transfixed by the scene where Gump walks into a room, turns right, and shakes John F Kennedy's hand. This set Jeff Lotman thinking. Because the film used old news footage, the mechanics of setting up the shot meant Gump couldn't walk into the room and turn left. But what if he could? Think of the possibilities that would open up: the old stars could live again. The idea stayed in his mind, and in 1997 he set up two companies, Global Icons (GI) and VCP, to do just that.

"It made me think it would be great to get the rights to recreate Hollywood's greatest legends," says Lotman. He set about contacting the families of dead stars to acquire their rights, not just for potential film appearances but for all merchandising. Few refused. "They like seeing their mother and father back on screen," he claims.

He quickly "signed up" Marlene Dietrich, James Cagney, Sammy Davis Jr, WC Fields, Clark Gable and Vincent Price. Cary Grant's widow turned him down, but that proved to be a rare exception. The reaction from James Cagney's estate was more typical. "They really liked the idea a lot, they liked the idea of seeing Jimmy going back to brand new roles he'd never made," he says.

Admittedly, some people are initially baffled by the concept. "These people can be in their sixties and seventies, so some of the ideas can seem pretty far-fetched. One of them looked at my wife, the chief operating officer of both companies, and said: `Do you really think you can do this?' If my wife didn't say yes, I was going to kill her - but she did. It took us two hours to travel to meet them and 20 minutes to agree it."

The technology to enable dead stars to appear on screen has only been made possible by massive advances in computing. Once an agreement has been reached, old family snaps of the dead actors are handed over to VCP and then scanned into a computer. A complete digital 3-D model of the head is built up which can then be superimposed on to film. An actor or actress has to perform as a kind of permanent body-double providing the movements for, say, James Cagney, but then has their head removed and the dead star's head superimposed.

"One of the issues that came up is whether this is going to put actors out of work," muses Lotman. "What it does, is create a brand-new category of `performance animation'. It still puts these people to work."

The company has just finished a 30-second short of Marlene Dietrich, which will be premiered in August at the Siggraph Convention, Los Angeles, the largest technology convention in the world. It will also get an airing next June for the opening of a Dietrich museum in Berlin. The family was involved every step of the way, approving the digital head, overseeing her colouring and the script, and making sure that every word is something the actress would have said or might have said.

They then spent two months searching for the body and voice double, whittling it down from 30 audio tapes. "We wanted someone who could best imitate the emotions of Dietrich," says Lotman.

"Down the road, we do want to make movies with these characters - the goal is for Dietrich to win her first Oscar."

How on earth could a dead person win an Oscar? Lotman doesn't see any problems, if we redefine what "dead" means. "If you didn't know Dietrich had died, how would you know she was dead?" he argues. "If you saw her on screen, you could say she's still alive."

Although it is technically possible, you won't be seeing deceased actors in out-of-character roles (or pornographic movies). You're not going to see Dietrich being anything less than glamorous: the estates probably wouldn't clear it, for a start, and no one can guess how the stars would have acted in these roles. This means that all future appearances will have to be reprises of past screen performances - or, as Lotman puts it, the roles played by the dead stars will "match the same emotional integrity that they had when they were alive".

He doesn't see this as a problem - as with actors, he believes, you tend to know what you're getting. "If you go to see a Tom Cruise movie, you know there's going to be lots of action and he'll get the girl in the end. He's not going to end up dying in a gutter somewhere. It's just not going to happen."

The response so far from industry and the public has been very positive. He staged focus groups before he set up the companies. At first, 85 per cent were in favour of his idea. That figure increased to 94 per cent when they were told the families had agreed to it. "And it was across all age groups, 18 to 25, and 45 to dead," he chuckles.

In two years, the companies have grown to employ 30 people and he could double his staff for the forthcoming production of a Chinese story called Little Panda - it features a (deceased) star-studded cast, which, for now, he wants to keep under wraps. It's a flourishing industry, he insists.

"I've just hung up with a producer in Germany wanting to do something with Dietrich and another deceased person," he reveals. "He's finished a script. You're going to see a film going into production in the next 18 to 24 months."

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