A new film starring James Dean, who’s been dead for more than 60 years, is slated to hit theaters a year from now, The Hollywood Reporter announced on Wednesday. Dean starred in just four movies before fatally crashing his car in 1955 at 24 years old. VFX artists will reportedly combine existing footage and photos of Dean with motion capture technology to bring the actor back to life, in a way. Another actor will voice his character.
The forthcoming movie is an adaptation of Gareth Crocker’s novel Finding Jack. The story, set in the 1970s, is about the more than 10,000 service dogs abandoned by the US military at the close of the Vietnam War. Dean will play a supporting character named Rogan.
According to the filmmakers, Rogan’s character arc is so “extreme” and “complex” that no living actor was up to snuff. "We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan,” said co-director Anton Ernst. “After months of research, we decided on James Dean.”
Ernst and co-director Tati Golykh obtained the rights to Dean’s image directly from his family. Canadian VFX company Imagine Engine will work with South African VFX studio MOI Worldwide to build “a realistic version of James Dean.”
"We feel very honored that his family supports us and will take every precaution to ensure that his legacy as one of the most epic film stars to date is kept firmly intact. The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make. We do not intend to let his fans down,” Ernst added.
A number of filmmakers have used CGI to de-age actors in recent years. Kurt Russell in 2017’s Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Sean Young in 2017’s Blade Runner 2049, Samuel L. Jackson in 2019’s Captain Marvel, and Will Smith in this fall’s Gemini Man are just a handful of examples. The latter marked a pretty significant forward leap in CGI technology — the younger Smith is a fully digital creation, akin to an animated character like Gollum in the Lord of the Rings franchise.
The ethics get thorny when this technology is used to bring a dead celebrity back to life, however. Actor Peter Cushing, who’d passed away 22 years prior, reprised his role as Governor Tarkin from 1977’s Star Wars: A New Hope in 2016’s Rogue One. The movie also featured a younger version of Carrie Fisher, who died within weeks of the film’s release, as Princess Leia.
The forthcoming final movie in the main Star Wars franchise, Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker will also feature a posthumous performance by Fisher — but director JJ Abrams clarified that his film will use “unseen footage we shot together in Episode VII” before the actress’ death. “We were never going to recast [Princess Leia] or use a CG character,” Abrams said. In the case of Star Wars, the filmmakers recreated Fisher’s image (in CG form and otherwise) to preserve the story’s continuity.
Finding Jack, the film slated to “star” James Dean, feels like a showy thought experiment with some rather obvious goals, however. If the VFX studios can pull off a realistic Dean that doesn’t distract from his live co-stars, it’d be a triumphant proof of concept and could open the floodgates for films starring dead celebrities — like deepfakes starring classic Hollywood icons.
Movies like Finding Jack could be an unexpected cash cow for deceased actors’ estates, too. "This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us," said Mark Roesler, CEO of CMG Worldwide, “experts in intellectual property management and valuation.” The company represents Dean’s family, as well as more than 1,700 other historical personalities like Neil Armstrong, Ingrid Bergman, and Christopher Reeve.
Ernst, the Finding Jack co-director, sees an altruistic angle to giving famous figures a voice from beyond the grave. "This technology would also be employed down the line to recreate historical icons [...] to tell stories of cultural heritage significance,” he said. It’s easy to imagine someone using this technology for nefarious means too, though.
For now, let’s focus on the more pressing question at hand: could James Dean, the Sexiest Man Not-Alive, possibly get nominated for an Oscar in 2021? The digital age is cursed, and I love it.