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Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford
Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa gets a comforting hug from Harrison Ford as Han Solo in “Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens.” (Lucasfilm Photo)

Spoiler Alert! This article discusses characters from recent Star Wars movies and speculates about future movies. Don’t read further if you’re trying to stay totally in the dark about the Star Wars saga from “The Force Awakens” onward.

When Carrie Fisher died last week, it left a huge hole in the hearts of the actress’ admirers, including the fans of Princess Leia … that is, General Leia Organa Solo, the resilient rebel leader in four Star Wars movies.

Fisher had just finished filming scenes for her fifth movie, Episode VIII, which should hit theaters this coming December. For what it’s worth, rumor has it that Leia plays a key part in the plot. (Spoiler here.)

It’s impossible to predict how big a role Leia might have in the final film of Star Wars’ triple trilogy, Episode IX, which is due for release in mid-2019. There could also be spin-off stories, a la “Rogue One,” that will continue even after Episode IX’s release.

If filmmakers were contemplating a role for Fisher in any of those movies, they’re facing a huge hole in their scripts. And one option to fill it could be the strategy that was used in “Rogue One”: creating computer-generated, motion-capture characters. (Major spoilers below.)

Several scenes in “Rogue One” show Peter Cushing as imperial henchman Grand Moff Tarkin, even though Cushing passed away in 1994. To recreate the role much as he played it in 1977’s original Star Wars film, Lucasfilm and Industrial Light & Magic brought in Guy Henry, an English actor who has a physical look and can take on a speaking manner similar to the ’70s-era Cushing.

As detailed in a New York Times feature, Henry was hooked up with motion-capture targets, similar to those used to create Andy Serkis’ Gollum character for the “Lord of the Rings” movies.

Post-production, animators laboriously adapted imagery from the 1977 film to overlay Cushing’s features on Henry’s frame, with the approval of the Cushing estate.

The technique has been used plenty of times in the past – for example, to create a younger Jeff Bridges for the “Tron: Legacy” reboot in 2010, a younger Michael Douglas for “Ant-Man” in 2015, or a younger Anthony Hopkins for a scene in HBO’s “Westworld.” But the appearances by a resurrected Cushing – and a younger-looking Carrie Fisher – mark a new milestone for virtual characters.

More than a decade ago, computer animation expert Rick Parent predicted that fully convincing virtual characters were “10 years away.” Today, Parent says synthetic characters have made great progress since then, but they’re still not on a par with the real thing.

“The more human-looking the character is, the more the viewer expects to see human-like motion (more physically accurate),” he told GeekWire in an email. “From my experience, viewers are great at noticing non-human motion of human character, even if it’s subtle. … Facial expressions and speech are still problematic for automatic computation, although tracking is getting much better.”

 

Whether or not the effect succeeds depends on the viewing conditions as well as the activity that the virtual character is performing, Parent said.

“Is the character viewed up close and personal, or from across a room, or down the street?” he asked. “And how active is the character? And then how much physics is involved? Is the character is a calm conversation, walking, running, or singing and dancing?”

It’s easier to maintain the illusion if the character’s appearance is fleeting – for example, if we’re looking at Cushing’s reflection in a window, as opposed to seeing his face in close-up.

The reviews for the virtual Cushing in “Rogue One” were mixed. Many filmgoers were wowed by the performance – but others said it crossed the line into what animators call the “uncanny valley.” That’s the gray area in which humanish but not-quite-human characters just creep you out.

Industrial Light & Magic’s John Knoll told The New York Times that “Rogue One” made use of virtual characters “for very solid and defendable story reasons.” The process is too expensive and labor-intensive to be used routinely, he said.

“We’re not planning on doing this digital recreation extensively from now on,” said Knoll, who was interviewed before Fisher’s death. “It just made sense for this particular movie.”

So will it make sense for Episode IX? That cliffhanger is likely to loom over the Star Wars saga for the next two years. In the meantime, insurers at Lloyd’s of London are said to be on the hook to pay a $50 million claim to Disney due to Fisher’s death.

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