Posts Tagged ‘Robert Powell’

The Overlord on Rumours that Mark Hamill Has Sold Image for Hollywood CGI Clone of Luke Skywalker

August 8, 2020

‘The Overlord’ is another YouTube channel devoted to news and views about genre cinema and television. It’s hosted by Dictor von Doomcock, a masked alien supervillain supposedly living at the centre of the Earth. And who is definitely not impressed at all at the state of contemporary popular culture, and particularly the way beloved film classics like Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and so on are now being trashed by producers who have no respect for these series and their fans. And in this video he talks about the bizarre next step in this process: the recreation of favourite film characters like Indiana Jones and Luke Skywalker through CGI, completely removing the need for human actors.

A website, WDW Pro, has claimed that Disney are looking for ways they can break the pause in filming imposed by the Coronavirus lockdown. They are therefore looking at ways to do without human actors. They have therefore been looking at a technological solution to this problem, using the same computer techniques used to create the films The Lion King of 2019 and the 2016 film version of The Jungle Book, as well as the facial recreation of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in Star Wars: Rogue 1. Frustrated at the hold-up filming the third Guardians of the Galaxy flick, Disney will use the technology, Cosmic Rewind, to create a completely computer generated movie, but one that would be presented as using human characters. This is going to be an experiment to test the possibility of creating films without human actors and the need for their salaries. According to a rumour, which WDW Pro has not been able to confirm, the projected film is about Young Indy, and its effectiveness will be tested when a rollercoaster based on the film comes on as part of Disneyworld.

Lucasfilm has also apparently made a deal with Mark Hamill within the last 18 months in which he has signed over his image to them so that they can use it to create a CGI Luke Skywalker. This Virtual Skywalker may also be used in the projected Galaxy’s Edge Star Wars theme park. However, due to the project’s severe financial problems, this may not happen anytime soon. Disney are slowly moving towards using this technology to dispense with human actors so that they won’t have to suffer a similar pause in filming ever again, although they won’t move away from human actors altogether immediately.

Doomcock himself laments this development, and feels that it is inevitable in a world where Deep Fake technology has advanced so far that we don’t know if the people we see or the news we watch are real, or that the characters we see on the screen are brought to life by real actors using the skills and craft they have learned. He wonders what will happen to our civilisation – what we will lose – if everything we see on the screen is synthetic, and we are removed another step again from reality and anything that has ‘heart’. It might all be all right, but it seems to him that the more we remove the human element from art and culture and make it the creation of AIs, the more removed we are from our culture.

He also vents his spleen about the choice of subject for this putative movie, pointing out that there was a TV series about Young Indiana Jones years ago, and nobody wanted it. He recommends instead that if this grave-robbing technology is to be used, it should be used to recreate the mature Indy of Raiders of the Lost Ark and Temple of Doom. He also criticises Hamill for what he sees as his poor judgement in making the deal with Disney. Hamill should know personally how a poor director can ruin a beloved legacy character, the actor’s own contribution and a favourite film franchise through his experience playing Skywalker in The Last Jedi. He famously wept on set during that movie and bitterly criticised the director’s decisions. He’s sarcastic about the respect Disney shows such legacy characters. It’s rumoured that George Lucas is returning to helm the Star Wars films, in which everything will be fine and we can look forward to a bright, new golden age. But considering the potential for abuse, Doomcock states that he is dismayed, flabbergasted and disgusted by Hamill’s decision and fearful for humanity’s future. As human culture becomes made by machines, hasn’t Skynet won? Who needs to launch nukes, when we have a CGI Skywalker dancing like a monkey in a bikini?

Here’s the video, but as Doomcock himself warns you, it isn’t for children. It has adult humour. Blatantly adult humour.

As you can see, there’s more than a little hyperbole in Doomcock’s argument, and some people will take issue at what he views as the humiliation of Luke Skywalker to push a feminist or anti-racist message, like Black Lives Matter. But his fears of the abuse of such technology aren’t unfounded, and have been around for quite some time. The possibility that actors would sell their images to film companies to recreate them Virtually, while making the flesh and blood person redundant, was explored a few years ago in the SF film The Congress by Ari Folman. This was loosely based on the Stanislaw Lem novel, The Futurological Congress, but is very different, and, in my opinion, inferior. For one thing, the Lem novel is hilariously funny, while the movie is grim and depressing. The movie is about a Hollywood actress, Robin Wright, playing herself, who makes precisely the deal Hamill is rumoured to have made. She then stars in a series of action movies, including one sequence that is definitely a tip to Kubrick’s Cold War masterpiece, Dr. Strangelove. But this is all computer animation. The Wright herself isn’t remotely involved in their filming. Indeed, it is a condition of her contract that she not act at all, and live the rest of her life in a very comfortable retirement. These developments are followed by the discovery of a drug that allows people to enter a vast, consensual Virtual Reality, in which they can be and do anyone and anything they want. The world’s masses abandon reality, so that civilisation decays into a very grim, dystopia of ruin, poverty and misery. At one point Wright takes the drug, which will return her to reality, only to find herself in a food queue in a burned out, abandoned building. Unable to come with this, she returns to the Virtual world to search for the son she lost while in a coma as a result of a terrorist attack on the Las Vegas congress she was attending at which the hallucinogenic drug was launched. As I said, it’s a depressing film in which such illusions really are bringing about the destruction of humanity. And there is no escape, except into the Virtual world that has caused it.

The film follows a number of other SF works that have also predicted similar dystopias brought about by the hyperreality of mass entertainment. This includes John D. MacDonald’s short story, Spectator Sport, in which a time traveller appears in a future in which all human achievement has ceased as the public live out their lives as characters in VR plays. Another, similar tale is Good Night, Sophie, by the Italian writer Lino Aldani, about an actress in a similar world in which people live harsh, austere lives in order to escape into a far brighter, more vivid fantasy world of entertainment. Rather less pessimistic was the appearance of the SF film, Final Fantasy, all those years ago. This was supposed to be the first film in which all the characters were CGI, and who were supposedly indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood reality. The fact that further films like it haven’t been made suggests that, reassuringly, people want real humans in their movies, not computer simulations.

We’ve also seen the appearance of a number of computer generated celebrities. The first of these was the vid jockey, Max Headroom on Channel 4 in the 1980s. He was supposed to  be entirely computer-generated, but in reality was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer under a lot of makeup. Then in the 1990s William Gibson, one of the creators of Cyberpunk SF, published Idoru. This was a novel about a man, who begins an affair with a Virtual celebrity. Soon after it came out, a Japanese company announced that it had created its own Virtual celeb, a female pop star. Gibson’s books are intelligent, near-future SF which contain more than an element of the ‘literature as warning’. The worlds of his Cyberspace books are dystopias, warnings of the kind of society that may emerge if the technology gets out of hand or corporations are given too much power. The creation of the Virtual pop star looked instead as though the corporation had uncritically read Gibson, and thought what he was describing was a good idea.

But going further back, I seem to recall that there was a programme on late at night, presented by Robert Powell, on the impact the new information technology would have on society. It was on well after my bedtime, and children didn’t have their own TVs in those days. Or at least, not so much. I therefore didn’t see it, only read about it in the Radio Times. But one of its predictions was that there would be widespread unemployment caused by automation. This would include actors, who would instead by replaced by computer simulations.

Computer technology has also been used to create fresh performances by deceased stars, sometimes duetting with contemporary performers. This worried one of my aunts when it appeared in the 1980s/90s. Dead performers have also been recreated as holograms, to make the stage or television appearances they never made in life. The late, great comedian Les Dawson was revived as one such image, giving post-mortem Audience With… on ITV. It was convincing, and based very much on Dawson’s own live performances and work. It was good to see him again, even if only as Virtual ghost, and a reminder of how good he was when alive.

I don’t know how reliable the rumours Doomcock reports and on which he comments are. This could all be baseless, and come to nothing. But I share his fears about the damage to our culture, if we allow our films and television to be generated by technicians and algorithms rather than flesh and blood thesps. Especially as the rising cost of movies mean that the film companies are unwilling to take risks and seem determined to rake over and exploit past classics rather than experiment with creating fresh material.

CGI’s a great tool. It’s used to create vividly real worlds and creatures. But I don’t want it replacing humans. Even if that means waiting a few years for new flicks to come out.

 

Coming Soon to TV this Christmas: IDS – A Real Video Nasty?

December 13, 2014

Ever since Charles Dickens invented the ‘traditional’, Victorian Christmas with A Christmas Carol, ghost and horror stories have been a part of the season’s entertainment. In the 1970s and ’80s the BBC broadcast a series of ghost stories, including a version of Dickens’ The Railwayman, and the chilling tales of the master of the British ghost story, M.R. James. The latter were told by Robert Powell, taking the part of James himself, who every Christmas settled down in his room at Oxford to tell a story of the ghastly and supernatural to his students. Last year Mark Gatiss of the League of Gentlemen and now Dr Who, presented a documentary on James’ life and career. Gatiss and the other members of the League were horror fans, and arguably much of the new Dr Who has its roots less in Science Fiction than Dark Fantasy and Horror. He therefore was a good choice as the programme’s presenter.

Other spooky delights on offer on TV in the past were Hammer’s gory and grisly tales, such as Dracula, Frankenstein and the Monster from Hell, and The Wolfman, featuring Oliver Reed as a werewolf, a part, which it could be said, he continued playing in many of his subsequent dramatic performances on chat shows around the world for much of his life. Some of his still remember his finest hour when he was thrown off the final programme of the discussion programme, After Dark.

Now watching the trailers last night for the forthcoming seasonal delights on the Beeb, I came across something that was genuinely unpleasant, far more so than anything dreamed up by Terence Fisher and the other fevered minds at Bray Studios in the 1960s. It was for a celebrity edition of University Challenge, and one of the faces looked like that of IDS.

This is genuinely grotesque. Christmas is traditionally a time of peace and goodwill to all, and yet there’s precious little of that on display with IDS and his actions. This is the politician, who has cut benefits and imposed sanctions to the point where claimants have actually died of cold and starvation on Britain’s streets, in their homes, or taken their lives through desperation. This is the politicians, who has lied and lied again about the effects of his policies to parliament. Not only that, but he is also personally treacherous and utterly without honour. When one lady, a Dutchwoman who had grown up here, worked all her life and paid her tax came to him as her MP about immigration problems, not only did … Smith refuse to help, he tried to have her deported.

Good King Wenceslaus, the song goes, took pity on a poor man ‘gathering winter fuel’, and so took him home to share his food and hearth out of charity. The real King Wenceslaus was the early medieval king of Bohemia, now part of the Czech Republic, who converted the country to Christianity. I’ve got the feeling that the Czech version of his name is Vaclav, which is obviously still a popular name in the Republic. It’s the first name, for example, of the dissident poet and first democratic Czech president after the fall of Communism, Vaclav Havel. I don’t know whether the real King Wenceslas ever did what the carol describes, but it’s not impossible. Medieval religion strongly emphasised charity and the ‘works of mercy’ as part of the co-operative grace granted to humanity through which they could gain salvation partly through their good works. It formed what modern scholars have termed an ‘economy of salvation’ in which wealthy merchants and rich noblemen were careful to work out exactly how much money they should spend on charity for the poor in order gain time off in Purgatory. Looking after the material needs of the poor was particularly important, as it was believed that they far dearer to the Lord than the rich, and so their blessings and prayers were particularly important in securing God’s pardon.

For all IDS’ rhetoric about ‘social justice’, I’ve seen precious little evidence that IDS has anything but hatred and contempt for the poor. Far from helping the poor man collect his firewood, and show due concern for the page following in his footsteps against treacherous, icy footing, IDS strikes me as far more likely to have taken away the pauper’s firewood as above the level allowed by feudal law, and given him a strong lecture on his improvidence and lack of self-sufficiency in not having rationed his firewood properly in the Christmas season. And the page would have to have made his own way to keep up with the king, as this would have been the only way to give him the proper training to compete in the go-ahead, globalised economy of the 11th century.

It also struck me as the beginning of a charm offensive by the Tory party in preparation for next year’s election. The Tories are keenly aware that they have an image as ‘the nasty party’. IDS himself is surely aware that he is one of the most hated men in Britain. It’s why he opened a jobs fair in his constituency, Chingford, early and left before the masses arrived. It’s also why he has been forced to sneak out the back when appearing at a job centre in Bath, as well as hide in laundry baskets to escape protesters. He’s also such a physical coward that when he appeared before a select committee in parliament to give evidence, he was surrounded by bodyguards and armed cops, pointing their guns at the public, including a number of disabled people and their carers in the public gallery.

His appearance on a festive edition of University Challenge looks like an attempt to present him as genial and family-friendly, a jolly type quite prepared to make a fool of himself on a quiz show at this time of year, rather than the vindictive, mean-spirited curmudgeon his really is.

It also seems to bear out a comment by Mark Kermode about the personal character of the makers of Horror and Family movies. Kermode’s the film critic on Radio 5 Live. He’s a long term Horror fan, having written books on Horror cinema and spoken before the British Boards of Film Certification about the censorship of particular video nasties. You remember them. They were films like Driller Killer, I Spit on Your Grave and Last House on the Left, that were so disgusting that when they appeared in the 1970s and ’80s they were banned. Kermode has said in his reviews that the makers of Horror movies all invariably tend to be really nice people. Wes Craven, who made Last House on the Left and then the Nightmare on Elm Street series, was actually a genuinely nice, highly educated, intelligent man. Craven has said in interviews that the extreme and genuinely disgusting violence and brutality in Last House on the Left was partly inspired by the images that were coming out of Vietnam in 1973. He saw the film as a polemic against violence, and showing how violence simply begets even more violence. To that point, he once walked out of one of Quentin Tarentino’s flicks. When one of the horror great Horror directors asked him how he could walk out of Tarentino’s movie, after he had directed something as revolting as Last House on the Left, Craven replied, ‘Well at least my movie’s about something!’

M.R. James seems to be another case in point. Rather than being a pale, sour misanthrope, Gatiss’ programme described James as quite a jovial, very sociable figure in real life, who enjoyed physically romping with his fellow students. Gatiss talked to the son of one of James’ students, who said that his father believed him to have been a non-practicing gay. Regardless of the speculation about James’ sexuality, what was clear was that James was a genuinely friendly man, who enjoyed his friends’ company and affection.

By contrast, according to Kermode, you can bet that the people who make family films are personally nasty. Well, this seems pretty much the case with IDS, which is no doubt why he wants to appear on TV in a positive light. Forget Hammer, Frankenstein, Dracula and Freddie Kruger, this is one Horror story I’ll be glad to miss.