‘Rogue One’: What Peter Cushing’s Digital Resurrection Means for the Industry

'Rogue One': Peter Cushing Digital Resurrection
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

When audiences flock to multiplexes this weekend to see Gareth Edwards’ “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story,” they’re in for a blast from the past.

The film, which takes place just before the events of George Lucas’ 1977 original installment, brings actor Peter Cushing back to cinematic life through the use of state-of-the-art visual effects wizardry to reprise the role of Grand Moff Tarkin. A British actor — Guy Henry, star of BBC series “Holby City” — was employed to portray the character physically on set, while in post-production, his work was replaced with a rather impressive Cushing performance by the artists of Industrial Light & Magic.

It was so impressive, in fact, that Cushing’s former secretary — Joyce Broughton, who oversees his estate and attended the film’s London premiere with her grandchildren — was taken aback emotionally when she saw the creation on screen.

“When you’re with somebody for 35 years, what do you expect?” Broughton says. “I can’t say any more because I get very upset about it. He was the most beautiful man. He had his own private way of living.”

Broughton, who was bequeathed Cushing’s estate when he died without an heir in 1994, was reticent to go into details about the situation due to a confidentiality agreement she signed with Disney and Lucasfilm. But despite the emotions, she said she was dazzled by the experience of the new film.

“I have to say, I’m not a ‘Star Wars’ fanatic, but I did think whoever put it together were absolutely fantastic,” she says. “It’s not just a silly sort of thing. It’s really good!”

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Cushing’s digital resurrection was first reported in August of 2015. A fleeting image of the eventual Death Star commander is teased in TV spots for the movie.

A Lucasfilm rep tells Variety that the filmmakers will not be discussing the nuts and bolts of what went into the actor’s reprise until January, in order for audiences to see the film and enjoy it without being spoiled by those details. But the implications raised by the bold achievement, and others like it, are another thing entirely — and they’ve been ringing throughout the industry for decades.

Films like “Zelig,” “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid,” and “Forrest Gump” traded in re-creating personalities of yesteryear. On the heels of “Gump” in 1995, director Robert Zemeckis resurrected Humphrey Bogart with the help of ILM artists for an episode of HBO’s “Tales From the Crypt.”

Two years later, Fred Astaire’s widow, Robyn, licensed the song-and-dance icon’s image for an infamous Dirt Devil commercial that depicted him dancing with a cordless vacuum cleaner — much to the chagrin of Astaire’s fans and even his daughter, Ava.

More recently, in 2012, hip-hop artist Tupac Shakur was brought back to life via simulated hologram for a performance at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in Indio, Calif. And just last year, Weta effects artists had to manifest much of actor Paul Walker’s performance in “Furious 7” after the actor died midway through production in a fatal car accident.

“We’ve been making photoreal people for quite some time in films,” says Richard W. Taylor II, a Directors Guild member and former vice-chair of the Visual Effects Society (not to be confused with Weta founder Richard Taylor). Taylor handled electronic conceptual design on the original “Tron,” but prior to that, he was involved in creating one of the first computer-generated human characters, for a short film called “Adam Powers, The Juggler.”

“This is when the beginnings of computer simulation were coming in, and already it raised questions such as, ‘Could we get them an agent?'” he quips.

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While Taylor was enthusiastic about the “Furious 7” work, he wasn’t particularly impressed with similar efforts to create a more youthful version of Jeff Bridges’ character for “Tron: Legacy.” But he says the tech is advancing at light speed. Reality is approaching the scenario depicted in the sci-fi film “The Congress,” in which Robin Wright plays an actress who retires after signing away her digital likeness for unlimited use by the fictional Miramount Studios.

Taylor’s current project, a new headset-free virtual-reality technology called Eymerce, will allow audiences to interact with life-size, photoreal virtual humans in real time. One of the company’s partners is the “Legends in Concert” celebrity tribute show in Las Vegas, which presently relies on pop-star impersonators who have used plastic surgery to resemble famous musicians. Technology can now take this phenomenon to the next level, whereby a performer who has studied a celebrity’s mannerisms can give the motion-capture performance that drives a convincing computer simulation.

When the issue involves a deceased celebrity, it comes down to what’s called postmortem publicity rights, in which the for-profit use of a celebrity’s name, likeness, image, and so on are decided by his or her heirs.

“There’s a whole new phenomenon where famous actors are getting themselves scanned in order to provide for their family and their family’s trust in perpetuity, so that they can be recreated in films in the future,” Taylor says. “Or as insurance, if they were injured or if anything happened while they were in a production.”

This technology raises all sorts of fascinating questions for the industry: If an actor declines to appear in a sequel or project, can the filmmakers now find a way to include him or her anyway (the way “Dawn of the Planet of the Apes” brought back James Franco by recycling deleted scenes from “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”)? If an actress’ contract protects her from having to shoot a nude scene, could one be created virtually using virtual body doubles?

As for the deceased, California has led the way in protecting the right to control how an actor’s image is used after his or her death. The legislature passed a law in 1984 establishing the postmortem right of publicity and timing them out 50 years after the individual’s death. The law was a response to a court ruling finding that Bela Lugosi’s heirs had no power to prevent the use of his image in Dracula merchandise. At the urging of the Screen Actors Guild, the legislature has since extended the right to 70 years.

“The issue for us is straightforward and clear,” a SAG-AFTRA spokesperson said. “The use of performers’ work in this manner has obvious economic value and should be treated accordingly. This is why we fight around the country, state by state, for strong right of publicity protections for performers. The digital recreation and use of performers in audio-visual works is in the vanguard of our policy efforts to protect performers.”

The protections afforded under California law apply only to those who die in California. In the United Kingdom, where Cushing lived and died, there is no recognized publicity right after death. Even so, Lucasfilm made sure to get the Cushing estate’s permission to use his likeness in “Rogue One,” a Lucasfilm rep said.

Dave McNary and Gene Maddaus contributed to this report.

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  1. Manuel Nogueira says:

    I’m a huge Peter Cushing fan – he is probably me favourite actor – and I was completely surprised and impressed by how perfect his digital rendering in this film is. With the exception of the mouth at close up, it was perfect. The only thing that put me off a little was the voice – the way the words were pronounced was perfect, but the tone was not. Peter Cushing had a beautifull unique voice and I supose it’s difficult for someone to imitate it exactly. Still, and all in all, a sucess. I can’t say the same thing of Leya’s cameo, at the end of the movie – it was painfully obvious it was a CGI character, which I found surprising considering how well they did with Tarkin in the same movie.

  2. Elijah says:

    Did Carrie Fisher get paid for the use of her 19 yo likeness in the film?

  3. Such ramifications are exposed even deeper in British SF novel “The Bequeathal: Godsent”, which cleverly mixes digital afterlife, e-surrections and cloning. Highly insightful.

  4. One of the most amazing CG postmortem creations were of Audrey Hepburn for a chocolate commercial in Europe! Shame it wasn’t mentioned in the article.

    Tarkin’s animation and rendering was super obvious, I was disappointed in that, especially after the astounding de-aging CG that Michael Douglas had in Antman. Honestly, both Tarkin and Leia’s CG was obvious, but Tarkin moreso for the performance.

  5. mandymarie20 says:

    I feel like I’m taking crazy pills. Am I the only person who found it horrendous and disrespectful to Peter Cushing’s memory? It was incredibly obvious that Tarkin was CGI. It looked odd, hollow, lacking depth, too symmetrical, hair never looks good, the movement was strange and too fluid for humans, no human ticks or mannerisms, too predictable movement and the voice was incredibly off with no grit or heaviness, For a pure actor like Cushing, the thought that he could just be replaced with some 1’s and 0’s and a vaguely British voice-over could not be more disrespectful. Do they honestly think Mr. Cushing would want a job to be taken away from an actor just to preserve his image? The proper thing to do would be to recast. The actors are aging and if DIsney wants the series to continue, be honest with the audience and explain that all people age and die and recasting is necessary. I would rather have seem the back of someone’s head or no Tarkin at all rather than this CGI monstrosity. If we continue down this path, why have actors at all? A CGI creature is different from a CGI person. The humanity can not be replicated. Clearly this is a money grab, not art.

    As to Leia, same problem. Just show the back of someone’s head with the buns. That would have been enough.

    The CGI people took me right out of the movie. I did enjoy the film, minus some other spoilers I won’t mention, but I could have enjoyed this much greater without these CGI images. I could not suspend belief with a floating Tarkin on screen.

  6. DJinOAK says:

    I do THINK that I could tell Tarkin was a CGI recreation of Peter Cushing, but then, I knew it going into the theater. My date, however, knew nothing of the illusion and noticed nothing unusual. A group near us started talking about Tarkin when the film ended, and most of them didn’t realize it either. Seeing as so many people were satisfied by the representation, and seeing as technology keeps improving with greater rapidity, I no longer think it’s far fetched to anticipate seeing Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh starring in a sequel to Gone with the Wind in the coming decades.

  7. docandraider says:

    Tupac was not a “hologram” — that image was created with a two-projector system onto a flat screen, similar to countless anime “concerts” one can see in Japan (and probably using exactly the same technology and equipment). A true hologram would be very, very different, folks; has fact-checking gone the way of the manual typewriter?

  8. Cushing worked with Carole Lombard in “Vigil in the Night” (1940). As much as I love her work, I’m not sure whether a digitally resurrected Lombard could succeed — it would have to be done by people who understood her unique talent and personality. I’d hate to see Carole exploited, a la Marilyn Monroe on numerous tasteless T-shirts.

  9. Ron says:

    This article was written by Kristopher Tapley and Peter Debruge, with contributions by Dave McNary and Gene Maddaus? So between all four of you “journalists” none of you realized you were actually spoiling a big surprise from the movie?!?! Thanks so much. You weren’t satisfied spoiling something in your article, you had to do it in the damn headline?! Well maybe it wasn’t malicious, I thought. Maybe they were just ignorant. But then no, you actually acknowledge it’s a spoiler (citing lucasfilms January date for discussing it publicly). Then you explain it away by saying a British tabloid printed it a year ago? Really? Most spoilers are printed “somewhere” before a movies release, by some sleazy site, but everyone else on the planet knows you still write a spoiler warning! Variety should be ashamed of itself. Like this story is so important it couldn’t wait? Next time I see any of these writers names on anything I’m running the other direction. The idea that these four guys got paid by Variety to spoil a big surprise is disgraceful!

  10. hcshannon says:

    My boyfriend and I were debating this, about replacing actors with digital imagery. I said they probably couldn’t because actors would be out of work.

    • Manuel Nogueira says:

      It’s impossible to replace a human actor with a digital one, no matter how perfect he or she looks. It would lack the emotional deapthness only human actors can have. But this tecnology opens the door to bringuing back to life deceased actors for sequels of their films or to including characters in sequels without having to replace the actor who plays it just because he or she doesn’t want to do it anymore – but always by having an human actor playing the character in motion capture, like Guy Henry played Tarkin in this film. Of course, this also opens the door for a lot of legal issues, because you can’t just use someone’s image without their permission – more work for the lawyers, I guess.

    • hcshannon says:

      Also to be honest I’ve seen worse attempts to finish a dead star’s last movie,
      Game of Death is one of them!

      • gregoryearls says:

        You’d always need actors for performance. It’s not like the interpretation and nuance of a character would be computer generated. Look at Andy Serkis, for example.

  11. Dario O says:

    This gives hope to seeing the original ending of Orson Welles’ Magnifenct Ambersons finally be made.. The script and Welles’ notes exist … what a thrill to see a Welles’ flawed mastweroiece become a true masterpiece after all these years

  12. Ben Robinson says:

    There is a vast error in this article. Robyn Astaire did NOT license the image of her husband until a LONG lawsuit forced the Dirt Devil people to their knees. It was along protracted battle that went to the US Supreme court. It idid not just happen the way the author states.

  13. Philm Guy says:

    I found the visual presentation of him entirely acceptable (unlike the very brief CGI version of the another iconic character right at the end), but I thought the voice was way off. I was surprised that they couldn’t find an actor better able to recreate Cushing’s quite distinctive vocal qualities.

    • Cath says:

      The end “reveal” looked more like an action figure to me, a doll, rather than a real person. Hard to tell if that was the intent, or if it was rushed in some way that the Peter Cushing “replica” wasn’t.

  14. Kevin says:

    After seeing “Rogue One” two times back to back when it opened today, I can attest to just how unbeliev- ably jaw-dropping a feat the digital recreation of Peter Cushing truly was to behold. While this is certain to be the jewel of passionately meticulous renderings in this superb prequel, the movie has several other time-
    suspended character cameos that will also both thrill and freak out moviegoers.
    Huge applause to Gareth Edwards for achieving a wonderful vision that more than makes up for the rickety,
    insulting mess that was “The Force Awakens”. I really hope that he’ll return to helm more epics in the “Star
    Wars” series.

  15. Nanny Mo says:

    The return of Peter Cushing was the best thing about the film true. I could only tell that he was CGI when I watched his mouth, it didn’t always have the expression of a real actor, but that said, I was very impressed. Soon we would need some hard to work with actors at all! Yeepee! Hated the movie over all though. Terrible directing, all the jokes fell flat, not a SINGLE laugh in the theater at ANY one of the jokes. I’m not kidding and it was all Star Wars fanboys and girls in the 40s there too.

  16. Amanda Pike says:

    I have mixed but somewhat warm feelings about Tarkin in the new Star Wars movie because I’m a huge Peter Cushing fan. And I like the idea of him living again even if it’s some corporate ploy to tug at nostalgia. I’m a Peter Cushing fan before Star Wars. I’m a classic Horror fan. And I’ll watch CGI Peter Cushing and listen to Maurice LaMarche do Vincent Price impersonations in cartoons and… it makes me feel like they’re alive again. It’s comforting, to know they aren’t forgotten. To feel like they’re still there.

    • Cath says:

      The voice just didn’t seem right. Other than that it was amazing, especially for those of us who grew up with the old Hammer films.

  17. JOE S HILL says:

    I just saw this movie and i have to say how very impressed i was watching this with my girlfriend-it was a great movie,and WAY better than “STAR WARS:THE FORCE AWAKENS” so i was somewhat surprised to see Peter Cushing back from the grave to reprise in 1977 role! should’ve known that he wasn’t the “real deal”,but that’s magic of CGI,and its almost scary! overall,”ROGUE ONE” was a great movie and it will score serious box office money in its first weekend!

  18. Edward says:

    I was blown away by the Cushing performance so much so that it actually enhanced “Star Wars” for . I knew it was coming and was still in shock and awe about how “real” it was.

  19. jim bob says:

    While it`s nice cg, it still is instantly recognizable as CG, and takes you out the scene every time it`s on. Until the day it`s literally impossible to tell cg from real life, it`s failed in it`s duty in situations like this.

    • Radagast27 says:

      Yeah, I felt exactly the same way, but I think a huge factor is that I’ve seen A New Hope so many times that I know exactly how Tarkin/Peter Cushing really looks, so seeing a CGI version of him is unmistakable. But I went with a friend who only saw A New Hope once, and wasn’t all that familiar with Cushing from other movies, and she claims she didn’t even notice he was CGI. So I guess the special effects didn’t fail for everyone. My point is, I think it depends on your familiarity with the real thing.

    • It really isn’t. None of the “young” people iI went with knew he was dead (Even my daughter, who recognised the character from the Star Wars Rebels Cartoon) and my father-in-law, in his 1970s remarked to my wife that he thought Cushing was dead, she replied that she did too and they must be wrong!

    • Bendayho says:

      Speak only for yourself on who it takes put of the movie

  20. Anurag says:

    Luckily I’ve already seen it, but you could’ve at least waited till the end of the weekend to post this spoiler of an article. Have some respect for movie audiences and fans that may have wanted to experience the surprise of seeing Tarkin on screen for crying out loud. I’m sure Disney and Lucasfilm are thrilled that you are ruining this moment they have deliberately kept secret for months. Good job.

      • Anurag says:

        Ok, but you’d only really know that Rogue One ends 10 minutes before A New Hope after watching the end of Rogue One. This fact, like the inclusion of some of the characters, was not put out by the filmmakers in advance. People can find spoilers if they choose to, of course, but most of them are on fanboy sites with appropriate spoiler alerts. Also, most of the countless articles on the subject you refer to at least had a vague enough headline, unlike yours at Variety. Yes, people have been speculating for months what original characters will be included…but Disney had not confirmed anything, and I really enjoy the anticipation of discovering the answers for myself while watching the movie. So I would’ve been pissed reading this had I not seen the film yet. There’s a general lack of respect nowadays for the viewing experience, whether its the studios themselves ruining it with overzealous marketing campaigns, or the press taking liberties with what they think should or should not effect the viewing experience. I acknowledge that this in particular is not a major spoiler, but you should know that though we may be in the minority, there are plenty of us movie fans that still try and find out as little as possible beforehand. I don’t think a spoiler alert or a vague title would’ve hurt you guys one bit.

      • Vulture, The Guardian, Telegraph — all far from vague headlines. I’m afraid that’s because this is a news business, not a protecting-fans-from-perceived-spoilers business. This article could have been written pre-release, but it wasn’t.

        And it’s worth pointing out, as I do in a previous reply — and given your original comment about Disney “deliberately” keeping this a secret — that the Tarkin reveal was used by the studio in TV spots for the film.

        Purely my opinion now: Spoilerphobic culture is a bit of a scourge. Certainly if you’re so eager to remain pure, you could avoid movie news websites. That’s a choice you can make. But the idea that knowing about a cameo appearance will somehow sully the experience of a movie — I submit that one might be watching movies for the wrong reasons if that’s the case.

      • Anurag says:

        I understand that an article from a British tabloid sighting an unconfirmed (at the time) source a year and a half ago may justify it for you, but clearly the filmmakers did not want people to find out that CGI Tarkin was in Rogue One until they saw the movie. And I’m sure you know there are movie fans that like to avoid spoilers so they get to enjoy everything the way the filmmakers intended it. You should realize that in your haste to put out the article, you probably diminished the experience of seeing the film for at least some people…but maybe that doesn’t matter to you or Variety. Maybe next time include a Spoiler Alert for those people who still appreciate the element of surprise.

      • I assure you this article was not published in “haste” — nor, I imagine, were the countless other articles on the subject Friday, given that journalists saw film a week ago. And I think knowing about the presence of a character in the film, which takes place 10 minutes before another film featuring that character, will not (or certainly should not) diminish the experience of seeing it.

  21. Lenny says:

    The next logical step is to create computer generated actors based on no one, and have them corporate owned. Then the corporations will always be promoting something they can control when they cast one of their images in a film. The image would also never age.

    That would be a sad day for TV and Film actors. The theater would be the only place to see human actors.

  22. Maximilian says:

    As a lifelong fan of Peter Cushing (and Christopher Lee), I was incredibly, pleasantly surprised to see such a wonderful likeness of the Grand Moff Tarkin in “Rogue One”! I really felt like he came back from the dead to reprise his role.

    • Drew says:

      Everything with the exception of one major flaw in the CGI recreation of Peter Cushing looked fantastic!
      My issue was CGI Peter Cushing’s mouth. It felt too animated and not natural. I think that visual effect has come a long way since Tron Legacy. Jeff Bridges CGI face recreation was abysmal. Rogue One’s attempt at CGI Cushing improved but still not perfected.

      Loved the move though!

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