‘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!”

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.

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.