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Making a convincing CGI Philip Seymour Hoffman won’t be easy

Film Review The Hunger Games Catching Fire

HOST INTRO: When he died in early February, Philip Seymour Hoffman had seven days left of shooting for the last Hunger Games movie. The studio is considering using Computer Generated Imagery to finish Hoffman’s performance. Technology has come a long way, but animators will have their work cut out for them. Lara McCaffrey reports. ____________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________________

NARRATION: Mockingjay: Part 2, the fourth film of the Hunger Games series, comes out November of next year. Philip Seymour Hoffman is the head gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee–a major role in a major film.

PHILIP SEYMOUR HOFFMAN: You have done our mission from the beginning, the plan was to always get you out. Half the tributes were in on it. This is the revolution. And you are the Mockingjay. 

Hoffman’s character has a long soliloquy that wasn’t filmed before he died of a drug overdose. Re-shooting with a new actor would be expensive making Computer Generated Imagery (or CGI) appealing.

VITARELLI: And they have to finish the movie. This is a huge movie, a huge budget, a lot of people’s jobs, there’s a lot riding on it. 

That was Doug Vitarelli. He’s an animator who creates 3D graphics for major news shows. He doesn’t see anything unethical about a CGI Hoffman although it makes fans queasy.

VITARELLI: He had signed on to do the project, unfortunately he died during it, but it was a project he was going to finish.

This isn’t the first time Hollywood has made the dead walk but many times it’s been for a novelty thing. Take the Dior commercial with a CGI Marilyn Monroe. Or Natalie Cole singing with a CGI version of her father, Nat King Cole. Akira Muzati Lippit teaches film at the University of Southern California. LIPPIT: If someone has been dead for awhile, and to bring them back is almost kind of like a movie nostalgia to see them interacting with contemporary or living beings can be justified to some extent by the clear sense of the distant past. 

3D animation filling in for recently dead actors has been done before. Brandon Lee in The Crow died on set when a prop misfired. During The Gladiator Oliver Reed died from a heart attack. CGI was used to finish the films, but recreating Hoffman will more challenging. Hoffman’s last scenes are long plus it’s hard to mimic the performance of such a distinct actor. In addition to the discomfort of seeing ghosts on screen, bad CGI can just be bad. Poor animation treads in what is called the “uncanny valley”–a CGI term referring to a feeling of repulsion when observing features that look almost, but not exactly, like people.

Creating realistic CGI humans requires great artistry and more advanced technology–something that can happen in the next year. Thomas Sito teaches animation at the University of Southern California.

SITO: The fun part about movie special effects and computer graphics up to this point is that there’s people saying they won’t be able to do it until somebody does it. I’m just going to say that with the technology that exists up to this point, it would be very difficult to do. Whatever they come up with, it’s likely to happen again. Doug Vitarelli says this may change how studios may draw up contracts with their lead actors.

VITARELLI: What actors should do is that they should have a 3D model of themselves created before they sign on to such a big budget feature in case something like this happens. Then the film production company could use those digital assets to finish the film. Not to create a new one but to finish it. 

But at the end of the day, we don’t need the best CGI in order to remember Philip Seymour Hoffman. He was the kind of actor that’s unforgettable.

SOUND: Bring up Nat King Cole and Natalie Cole’s “Unforgettable”.

Lara McCaffrey, Columbia Radio News.

SOUND: Fade out “Unforgettable.”


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