‘Casting From Forest Lawn Cemetery’: Re-Animating Dead Screen Stars

Symposium:


Session Title:

  • Filmic Mediations

Presentation Title:

  • 'Casting From Forest Lawn Cemetery': Re-Animating Dead Screen Stars

Presenter(s):



Abstract:

  • In Villiers de l’Isle-Adam’s late nineteenth century novel, Tomorrow’s Eve, a fictionalized Thomas Edison unveils an astonishing technology: a precursor to cinema, which projects the singing and dancing image of a woman who has been dead for several years. “Her death mattered very little; I can make her come into our presence as if nothing had ever happened to her,” Edison declares. This literary moment is emblematic of how the advent of audio and visual recording media in the late nineteenth century were thought to constitute a triumph over death.

    In the twenty-first century, the recorded images and sounds of the singing and performing dead are now unremarkable: my local supermarket sells Marilyn Monroe classic movies on DVD, next to the dishwasher detergent and air-freshener. During the 1990s, however, with the rise of what Lev Manovich has called a computer-driven “remix culture,” footage of dead stars and celebrities such as Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, and John Wayne began to be repurposed via editing or compositing for advertising and guest appearances in films and TV shows. It is now also possible to bestow performance footage or digital likenesses of celebrity personas with new gestures and expressions that they themselves did not generate before the camera while alive. I call such images here, “re-animations.”

    For scholars, the main import of such images has been for intellectual property law. However, more general speculation and commentary in the English-speaking entertainment and technology press, blogs, and viewer responses on Youtube, suggest ambivalence and concerns that go beyond the legal. For instance, in January 2007, American popcorn king Orville Redenbacher, who died in 1995, was re-animated to appear in a ten second television spot. A clay model was made of his head from video references, scanned and animated, composited or grafted onto footage of an actor’s body, while an impersonator provided his voice. The public face of his own brand, he was known for his popcorn advertisement in the 1970s and 80s. This new advertisement, developed by Digital Domain for the agency Crispin, Porter & Bogusky, was a homage featuring Redenbacher ostentatiously listening to an MP3 player and microwaving popcorn while live action workers in a kitchen gaped at him, apparently startled that he had returned from the grave. The result was widely assessed as “terrifying,” “gruesome” and “creepy”: the head bobbles strangely on the body, the eyes are dulled and unseeing behind his spectacles, and the mouth movements are slightly out of synch.

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