Virtual Actors, Spectacle and Special Effects in the Matrix Trilogy

[Credit for this post must be shared with a group of my final-year students at the University of Exeter. The assignment was to re-edit a piece of writing for re-publication online. I hadn’t tried this before, but wanted to experiment with collaborative work using Google docs. To begin with, I posted the first draft of an essay I wrote in 2003, the first book chapter I ever had published (the finished product had ended up in The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded, edited by Stacy Gillis and published by Wallflower Press in 2005). The task was to re-edit a 6000-word essay to about half that length, correcting errors, adding web-links and images, removing academic jargon and generally formatting it for an online readership (however they might interpret such a thing). There were 28 students on the module, and each had access to the document – the only rules were that other students’ edits should be respected: if you wished to change something that had already been reworded, you should add a comment to say why. The integrity, argument, grammar, tone and style of the original text demanded no such respect, and was to be disregarded completely. Almost every sentence has been altered in some way. More than 3000 words have been excised, either by making my youthful, eagerly excessive prose more succinct, or by hacking out wholesale paragraphs that distracted from the central argument. I wouldn’t want to have them treat another writer’s work in this way, and the essay was mostly concerned with close reading, clarifying an argument, addressing a different audience and working collaboratively, so in future, I’ll give this another go and divide students into smaller groups and let them work together to build a blog post from the ground up rather than just cleaning up my old messes. It was a very interesting process to watch, and I hope they also found it productive/instructive. The results are posted below.]
Film studies once saw special effects as extrinsic to narrative progression; more often than not, spectacle was seen as eye-candy for the benefit of viewers unable to concentrate without pyrotechnics. Whilst visual spectacle can be used as a fig leaf to hide the shame of substandard storytelling, critics such as Michele Pierson and Norman Klein  have seen  special effects as an integral component of commercial cinema, rather than as a side-effect of its perceived deterioration. In addition, Hollywood’s gleeful embrace of digital technologies for the production of photorealistic computer-generated imagery (CGI) since the early 1990s has promoted a simulationist aesthetic that has caught the attention of postmodern audiences more than hubcap UFOs and rubber dinosaurs ever could. In the Matrix trilogy, we see not so much a striving to stultify and patronise the cinema audience with immersive sights, and more a special effects agenda which connects text with context, image with apparatus. The Wachowskis’ films deploy almost the entire panoply of available effects, including digital matte paintings, miniature models and prosthetic make-up.  We will here concentrate on one particular scene from The Matrix: Reloaded – the sequence which has come to be known as ‘The Burly Brawl’. This scene allows the viewer to observe the full mobilisation of virtual actors in computer-generated backgrounds, and places the human cast in conflict with digital doubles. Consistency is maintained across the Matrix trilogy through the integration of narrative and spectacle. It makes logical sense that the plot oscillates between two separate environments, the first (the Matrix) seductively illusory and the other (the ‘real’ world) inhospitably solid. Neo finds that he has been plugged into the reconfigured post-apocalyptic planet, and that what he thought of as his body was a digital avatar of his excorporeated mind. The view from inside the Matrix provides the spectator with all of the films’ comforting filmic pleasures (the spatio-temporal manipulations of bullet-time, fetish-fashion, indestructibility and choreographed violence) – what Jeffrey Sconce calls a “hipster playground of high-action and high-fashion” (204) – while the real world is a harsh and hungry wasteland. The virtual world of the Matrix asserts its authenticity by conforming to physical laws, resulting in an environment grounded in what Stephen Prince terms perceptual realism: that distinctive facet of CGI which aligns it with photorealism by virtue of its detailed textural resemblance to its referent, but which enables it to create impossible objects, locations and characters by virtue of its extreme malleability; CGI thus creates visual images which are “referentially fictional but perceptually realistic” (32). The photorealistic aesthetic of digital effects have led to a popular belief that digital imaging technologies are about to usher in a new age of absolute simulation where the filmed and generated are indistinguishable. It is assumed that complete immersion is the ultimate goal, however, digital special effects perform two functions; to create convincing illusory worlds and to make itself known, allowing the spectator to question its construction as well as its evolution from previous imaging techniques. But budgets are wasted if expensive special effects go unnoticed. Visual spectacle asks spectators to marvel at the comparison of it with the ‘real’. The discrepancy between them is the space in which visual effects can be understood by the spectator, and though it might be a gap narrowed by photorealism, extra-textual reference points help to preserve its integrity. Each component of the Matrix franchise is linked to the whole by a series of digressive pathways. At one level these can be narrative-based connections – in The Final Flight of the Osiris from The Animatrix, Jue posts a message from within the Matrix which arrives in the diegetic space of The Matrix: Reloaded, while the computer game Enter the Matrix features a narrative thread that intersects with that of Reloaded. At another level, the digressions point to the apparatus behind their production. More than most film cycles, The Matrix has fostered a network of discursive articles, behind-the-scenes footage, fan fiction, crew interviews and on-set photographs all clustered around the mainframe of an official website. Barbara Klinger describes spectators taking ‘digressive pathways’, raging from “generic or narrative intertexts that school the spectator in dramatic conventions, to a host of promotional forms … that arm the spectator with background information”(4). The digressive principle is demonstrated nowhere more explicitly than in the ‘Follow the White Rabbit’ feature on the Matrix and Matrix: Revolutions DVDs, which prompts the viewer to exit the film and watch behind-the-scenes footage of the production techniques used in the making of a particular sequence. The white rabbit motif, borrowed from the film itself, signifies the first step in Neo’s voyage of awakening to the true nature of the Matrix. Its use on the DVD creates a correlation between the story and the product that contains it.

The proliferation of behind-the-scenes material and revelation of the technologies behind the effects offsets any conviction in the illusion suggested by photorealistic CGI. At the most cynical level, this is in the service of selling DVDs with the promise of privileged secrets, or of attracting hits to members-only sections of websites, but it also keeps the spectator engaged with the diegetic technologies as reflections or extrapolations of extra-filmic developments in digital imaging. Consequently, by finding new ways to engage with the profilmic aspects of the Matrix trilogy, the spectator becomes an active participant in the process of reinforcing the illusion of virtual reality offered by the trilogy’s diegesis. The spectator’s desire to enter the virtual world encountered onscreen is made possible through the paratextual features found on the DVD release, which situate the film as merely one medium by which the Matrix may be explored; indeed, as Chuck Tryon has noted, ‘the film itself serves primarily as a means of stimulating interest in the wider media franchise, one that extends well beyond the DVD itself into other ancillary materials’ (29). The digressive aspects of the film serve to preserve the function of special effects to draw attention to themselves without necessitating compromises in technical clarity and perceptual realism.

The Burly Brawl

The Burly Brawl’ refers to a scene midway through Reloaded in which Neo fights an ever-expanding army of Smiths, the rogue agent who has acquired the ability to clone himself. Initiated by a scuffle with a few agent replicas, the scene employs special effects to primarily remove wires and to digitally graft Agent Smith’s visage on to the faces of each stunt performer. As Neo is called upon to parry the attacks of increasing number Smiths, so the visual effects are required to replace more of the combatants with computer-generated doubles. This challenges the spectator to discern the points at which the switches occur, urging the viewer to contemplate the discrepancy between real and rendered.
The scene also serves self-consciously as a showcase for ‘Virtual Cinematography,’ the conglomeration of digitally-rendered bodies and backgrounds offering a theoretically unlimited number of shooting angles within that virtual space. Before ‘Virtual Cinematography’ became the technical buzzword surrounding the films, The Matrix offered its viewers the signature visual trope of ‘bullet-time,’ an effect of camera movement within ultra-slow motion which, despite occupying no more than twenty seconds of screen time in the first film, was instrumental in establishing the film as technically innovative. In bullet-time effects, the human subject is first recorded against a green screen by the rig of up to 120 cameras set to shoot in rapid sequence, providing a series of still images of the action (see Figure 1) Such a novel, seemingly unique effect might be seen as working against the intertextual digressions we have suggested are prompted by the appearance of a technical illusion – how does the spectator find an intertext for something that has never been witnessed before?
Bolter and Grusin have argued that new media forms exist only in relation to earlier configurations of techniques and technologies (50). The innovative bullet-time sequences used in the Matrix trilogy are a recent illustration of existing technologies narrativised and branded as a novel visual spectacle. Another example is The Campanile Movie (1997), Paul Debevec’s 150-second fly-by of the Berkeley campus (see video above), where textures of the buildings captured from still photographs were mapped onto three dimensional representations of their actual geometry thereby allowing the creation of virtual backdrops into which the human subjects could be composited.Similarly, Dayton Taylor’s ‘Timetrack’ camera rig, which had been patented in 1997 and tested on several television commercials, sired the means of capturing the ultra-slow motion foreground action; we could even trace such multi-camera experiments as far back as the motion studies conducted in California in the 1870s by Eadweard Muybridge (right),“the man who split the second,” as Rebecca Solnit would have it (7). Even though the vast majority of viewers would not have had prior knowledge of these experiments in the history of remediation, it is unlikely that they had never experienced the kinds of hyperbolic spatio-temporal manipulations they inspired. If the Matrix films give the impression of novelty, it is only an illusion created by the prolific remediation of a wide variety of pop cultural reference points; they have appropriated certain qualities of kung fu films, comic book visuals, anime compositions and anti-corporate nu-metal posturing, technologised as if to proclude their imposition upon the new texts. The early version of bullet-time was not fully virtualised because it required detailed pre-planning from conceptual drawings by comic book illustrators Steve Skroce and Geof Darrow (Lamm 8) to computer-generated pre-visualisations of shots, followed by strict adherence to those plans at the shooting stage. The virtual camera was constrained, its very virtuality a cunning illusion. In one piece of explication/publicity, visual effects supervisor John Gaeta promises that the sequels’ virtual cinematography was more advanced, allowing the construction of shots to be devised regardless of camera position and possible lines of movement:

We wanted to create scenes that were not in any way restricted by physical placement of cameras. … We wanted longer, flowing shots that built action to a level where the interactions of bodies would be so complex there would be no way that we could properly conceive of the cameras during shooting. Instead, we would create the master template for the choreography, and then have complete flexibility to compose shots in postproduction.’ (quoted in Fordham 87)

Gaeta claims that the virtual camera technology was supposed to mirror the way the technology in the film created an enforced hallucination in the Matrix whilst existence continued outside of it. The Matrix films thematise technology in ways which are not unfamiliar within discourses around science fiction and cyberpunk cinema, but the visual effects serve to knit the components of the franchise together as a transmedia experience, and go beyond the usual spectacular functionings of such illusions to solidify the connections between the diegetic and extra-filmic technologies. For instance, the presence of virtual actors within the films is more than a technical anomaly necessitated by the limits of human performance, but a fully integrated trope mobilising discursive elements within and without the text. The virtual actor was also the result of discussions of superhumanism between the Wachowskis and John Gaeta: “Within the Matrix, everything is really a state of mind, a mental self-actualization of your abilities. We wanted to visually depict that power, simulating events that Neo was part of.” (quoted in Fordham 86)

Virtual Actors and Cinematic Bodies

It would be easy to believe that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor” (quoted in Baylis). The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its human referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event, but indicators of ‘the state-of-the-art’ offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow 1) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has pervaded the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years; however, whereas in the pastthe computer-generated body had to fit into the diegesis unobtrusively, more recent films such as Avatar have moved away from the dichotomy of human and synthespian by fusing the marvels of CGI with the gestures, expressions and voices of real actors, creating immersive virtual worlds in which there is no tell-tale seam between illusion and reality. The seamless nature of this combination is still reliant on the actor’s performance to bridge the gap between the virtual and the actual by providing the digital body with a soul.

The Animatrix also explores uses of the virtual body – the CGI striptease which opens The Final Flight of the Osiris announces itself as ‘advanced’ by lingering on detailed surfaces of athletic bodies in action, drawing focus onto the technology which created it.Keen-eyed viewers might notice that Jue exhibits what might be the world’s first sighting of CG cellulite – the markings of a true body without the idealised gloss of airbrushed skin. Thus the desire for computers to create an ever more realistic “digital actor” has developed to include the imperfections of the human body. Jue’s movements were created from a combination of motion-capture from live actors, and ‘key-frame’ animation directed by computer animators. Unlike other CGI/human constructs such as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy or Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace, in The Matrix trilogy, the virtual body provides a visual articulation of posthuman transcendence which confers fantastic capabilities upon the diegetic body and simultaneously imagines a liberated future for the cinematic body. No longer constrained by the limitations of the recording medium, the director is free to experiment with techniques such as ‘bullet time’ and the ‘virtual camera’ in order to present us with a world that, whilst clearly impossible in its flouting of the laws of physics or the death-defying stunts of its characters, nonetheless derives verisimilitude from its status as an autonomous entity; though impossible in our world, the removal of the spectator to a new, often techno-futurist reality eliminates the awkward juxtaposition of real/illusory as we struggle to reconcile what our eyes tell us with what our mind knows about the world we inhabit.Neo takes on the properties of a digitally cinematic body – he is preternaturally fast, fluid and precise in his movements. Through centring Neo in the onscreen action (Figure 2) and the use of digital effects (notably slow motion), Neo becomes both a powerful character within the story of a digital simulation and also a star perfomer within a filmic space. We could say that he is becoming synergised – he can assume the capacities of a computer game sprite or a synthespian, replicable and spectacular just by virtue of his very existence (as opposed to by virtue of what he actually does). His individual skill sets are downloaded as if they were applications for a smart phone, and it is within the realm of the Matrix that characters can use these skills to manipulate their bodies and appearances (what Morpheus calls “residual self image”), enabling them to become glamourised upgrades of their organic forms, which are prostrate elsewhere, grimy and linen-clad. The digital avatar, built from motion capture data, is a cinematic prosthesis which enables the performer to enact cinematisation directly, rather than through the use of tactical editing and careful composition which can, for instance, hide the face of a stunt double. The Brawl toys with viewers’ expectations about how an action sequence usually has to work around the limitations of the body. Virtual camera moves are only recognisable as such because we are familiar with where and how a camera can and cannot be moved.

When asked about similarities between the Burly Brawl and the climactic battle between the Bride and the Crazy 88 gang in his Kill Bill Volume I (2003), Quentin Tarantino was keen to distance himself from such “CGI bullshit,” even though his fight scene is as much a cinematic construction as any in the Matrix: “You know, my guys are all real. There’s no computer fucking around. I’m sick to death of all that shit. This is old school, with fucking cameras. If I’d wanted all that computer game bullshit, I’d have gone home and stuck my dick in my Nintendo” (quoted in Dinning 91). Tarantino objects to the over-use of CGI, but forgets that one of the reasons for the deployment of such “profane” digital imagery in the Matrix films is precisely for the purposes of differentiation from the films to which it refers (or pays homage). Yuen Woo-Ping served as a martial arts advisor on both the Kill Bill and the Matrix series, but the combat between Neo and Smith represents a dramatic remediation of the choreography for which he is renowned, rather than the generic authenticity for which he was enlisted by Tarantino. The Burly Brawl is built up from a series of actions appropriated from the kung fu film’s generic database, hyperbolised, digitised and virtualised. David Bordwell refers to the kung fu film’s use of “expressive amplification,” whereby “film style magnifies the emotional dynamics of the performance” (232). Therefore, combatants in kung fu films can appear to fight with superhuman speed (under-cranking the camera during shooting makes the projected film run slightly faster), skill (supporting wires can help them to defy gravity) and strength (power powder sprinkled on clothing, coupled with sound effects, accentuates the visual and sonic impact of a blow). The Brawl remediates what Bordwell terms the “one-by-one tracking shot,” a technique of cinematic authentication through which a fighter is shown moving through a group of combatants in a continuous take. The length of the unedited shot cues the spectator to accept that the performer is demonstrating a sustained sequence of skills. During the Burly Brawl, two such shots occur, the first performed by Keanu Reeves and a group of stunt performers, the second by his digital double. Subjecting the real and virtual bodies to the same modes of mediation helps foster the viewer’s fascination with a discrepancy between the two. Throughout the Brawl, the spectator is incited to distinguish between them, just as the kung fu fanatic will inspect the text for evidence of the star’s authenticity or replacement by a diegetically anomalous but technically necessitated stunt double. The trilogy constructs a dialectic between old and new by remediating kung fu motifs and visual stylings; for instance, the pedagogic dojo fight sequence, wirework and choreographed combat. When Keanu’s digital copy flies through the air, the illusion is distinct because the virtual body is unfettered by the need for physical reference – wirework always exhibits the body’s need for balanced weight distribution, providing its distinctive, super-real look.
The Matrix films have presented a series of postulations on the past and future of special effects. Virtual cinematography is defined in relation to earlier, less technologised forms of cinema (kung fu, anime) by remediating their motifs of physical or animated display in the service of a technological spectacle. However, it also offers a ‘utopian’ idea of a cinema free from the tethers of indexicality and practical constraints. This liberation is reflected in Neo’s empowerment as a virtualised body, free from the gravitational and physical restrictions of the real world.One must keep in mind though, that since this fiction always exists as a redesigning of existing reference points, the concept of virtual cinematography is, for the time being, only an illusion of what the future holds. The spectator is empowered with mastery of the film text by a profusion of textual exit points, which offer the chance to observe the spectacle from a remove that reveals its artificiality, while simultaneously celebrating the seductive force of its artifice.


  • Baylis, Paul. “Weekend Beat: In quest of the ‘holy grail’ of the truly lifelike digital actor.” 7 June 2003.
  • Bordwell, David. Planet Hong Kong: Popular Cinema and the Art of Entertainment. Harvard: Harvard UP, 2000.
  • Bolter, Jay David and Richard Grusin. Remediation: Understanding New Media. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.
  • Buckland, Warren. “Between Science Fact and Science Fiction: Spielberg’s Digital Dinosaurs, Possible Worlds, and the New Aesthetic Realism.” Screen 40:2 (Summer 1999): 177-192.
  • Bukatman, Scott. Terminal Identity: The Virtual Subject in Postmodern Science Fiction. Durham: Duke UP, 1993.
  • Dinning, Mark. “The Big Boss.” Empire 14:11 (November 2003): 84-92.
  • Fordham, Joe. “Neo Realism.” Cinefex 95 (October 2003): 84-127.
  • Hunt, Leon. Kung Fu Cult Masters. London: Wallflower, 2003.
  • Kerlow, Isaac V. “Virtual CG Characters in Live-Action Feature Movies.” 19 November 2003.
  • Klein, Norman M. The Vatican to Vegas: A History of Special Effects. New York : The New Press, 2004.
  • Klinger, Barbara. “Digressions at the Cinema: Reception and Mass Culture.” Cinema Journal 28:4 (Summer 1989): 3-19.
  • Lamm, Spencer, ed. 2000. The Art of The Matrix. New York : Newmarket Press.
  • Pierson, Michele. Special Effects: Still in Search of Wonder. New York : Columbia UP, 2002.
  • Prince, Stephen. “True Lies: Perceptual Realism, Digital Images and Film Theory.” Film Quarterly 49:3 (Spring 1996): 27-37.
  • Sconce, Jeffrey. Haunted Media: Electronic Presence from Telegraphy to Television. Durham: Duke UP, 2000.
  • Sellors, Paul C. “The Impossibility of Science Fiction: Against Buckland’s Possible Worlds.” Screen 41:2 (Summer 2000): 203-216.
  • Solnit, Rebecca. Motion Studies: Time, Space and Eadweard Muybridge. London: Bloomsbury, 2003.
  • Wood, Aylish. “Timespaces in Spectacular Cinema: Crossing the Great Divide of Spectacle Versus Narrative.” Screen 43:4 (Winter 2002): 370-386.

Gaia and Dolls: James Cameron’s Avatar

[See also the follow-up post, Digesting Avatar.]

Do you feel like the game has changed? Are we in a new age of spectacular cinema, freed from technological limits? That’s what was promised, but has Avatar rescued us from our humdrum lives of everyday movies with everyday special effects? My initial verdict is, well … sort of.

First things first (and here’s where you’ll find the greatest concentration of potential poster-quotes) Avatar looks astonishing. Really. It has wondrous moments when you momentarily accept the tangibility of the lanky blue folk on the screen, and it makes perfect sense that these are couched in a narrative about a man exploring a new world via a new body: Cameron meshes together the diegetic events and the experience of their spectacles perfectly, so the spectator’s exploratory view of Pandora (where the film takes place) can be focused on discoveries of plants and species that are, at the same time, discoveries of CGI novelties. It means you don’t have to feel bad about stopping and staring: it makes gawping at stuff feel like a plot point. But the plot is so stale that it might even be seen as a deliberate strategy to choke off any sense of suspense or complexity and force the audience to focus on the immediate splendour of the present moment: don’t worry about what’s going to happen, just check how good it looks as it’s happening.

Read on…

Picture of the Week #4: Eyes Wide Shut

Eyes Wide Shut Censored version [Click to Uncensor]

[Click on the image to uncensor it, i.e. to see it as it was originally intended, but beware the naughtiness within…]

OK, adults only for this one. Spectacular Attractions is usually a family show, but this is a different kind of Friday. Here, go and look at Pinocchio, or possibly the Muppets.

A frame grab from Stanley Kubrick’s final film, Eyes Wide Shut. Kubrick died shortly after completing the film, having promised to deliver an R-rated movie (apparently, he watched a bunch of Hollywood’s more sexually explicit films in order to gauge what would be considered acceptable to receive such a rating). The sequence in which Tom Cruise visits a masked orgy was considered to be NC-17 territory, a rating which ostensibly marks something out as unsuitable for children, but which actually decreases its chances at the box office, rejection by self-righteous finger-waggers and unwarranted controversy from a wide variety of spoilsports. However, although MGM surely would have just snipped out the relevant glimpses of humping, they found themselves hidebound by their commitment not to re-edit or cut a frame of Kubrick’s footage. What to do? The simple answer would be to suck it down and release the film unadjusted, take the reduced box office safe in the knowledge that you hadn’t compromised the artistic vision of a man on whose name you’d been happily trading for years. Alternatively, you could take some digital people and graft them onto the film to cover up those dangerous bits of flesh. Very clever – loyal to the exact wording of their commitment to Kubrick, but actually snuffing out the spirit of it in one quick application of polygons. The result can be seen in the image above.

Barbara Creed saw this as an advance notice of the coming age of the synthespian, when human actors would routinely be replaced by digital substitutes. She suggested that as they took over, we might have to change the way we relate to people onscreen, since the virtual actor would have no Unconscious, and thus not be “subject to the same experience as the living star, experiences such as mothering, Oedipal anxiety, hunger, loss, ecstasy, desire, death.” But then, she also predicted that porn stars, already artificially augmented beyond the realms of realism, could be doubled by virtual actors. It all sounded a bit William Gibson to me, and this week’s picture instead made it look as though digital people were just going to show up in films where they weren’t wanted and spoil everyone else’s view.

How Special Effects Work #2: Virtual actors are on the way.


In some of my earlier writing about special effects, I regularly found myself banging a particular drum, and eventually had to stop myself getting repetitive. In my research on special effects, I continually found practitioners, and some critics espousing a belief that virtual actors were soon going to reach such a perfect state of simulation that spectators would be unable to tell them apart from the real thing. The following comes from a paper I wrote for Stacy Gillis’ collection The Matrix Trilogy: Cyberpunk Reloaded:

It would be all too easy to fall for the suggestion that the age of the synthespian is imminent, and that soon human actors will interact with computer-generated co-stars without the audience realising which is which. Will Anielewicz, a senior animator at effects house Industrial Light and Magic, promised recently that “Within five years, the best actor is going to be a digital actor”. The apotheosis of an animated character into an artificially intelligent, fully simulacrous figure indistinguishable from its carbon-based referent is technically impossible, at least in the foreseeable future, but visual effects are not definitive renderings of a character or event but indicators of the state-of-the-art offering “a hint of what is likely to come” (Kerlow) in the field of visual illusions in the future. It is understandable that such a competitive industry needs to maintain interest in the potential of its products, but the mythos of the virtual actor has infiltrated the Hollywood blockbuster in recent years […]

For the record, I regret the phrase “technically impossible”: I think the barriers to producing perfect synthespians are not primarily technical, but cultural and economic (if there was enough demand, money would have been found for even more research and development even sooner). I was using the “mythos” or concept of the virtual actor, the belief in inevitable progress, as an example of the kind of teleological argument that I wanted to unpick. It wasn’t hard to find it surfacing in other places. This from another essay in James Lyons and John Plunkett’s Multimedia Histories: From the Magic Lantern to the Internet:

Kelly Tyler, of NOVA Online, a science-based website, has identified the photorealistic human simulacrum as “a new digital grail.” Damion Neff, an artificial intelligence designer for Microsoft video games has called it “the Holy Grail of character animation.” In his keynote address at the 1997 Autonomous Agents Conference, Danny Ellis listed the emotionally intelligent virtual actor as one of four “holy grail” in the field. In May 2003 John Gaeta, discussing his visual effects work on The Matrix Reloaded in the Los Angeles Times, referred to a believable digital human as “the holy grail” of our world. It seems that the Grail analogy has found some currency, at least amongst those working in the relevant creative industries. This frequently uttered analogy sums up the suggestion that technologies of visual representation have been working inexorably towards a final goal, but they might also inadvertently hint that such a goal is essentially elusive.

The development of special effects over time suggests scientific progress as motion towards a logical conclusion, their development effected by a series of refinements and improvements to existing mechanisms. Certainly, computer-generated imagery, with its increasing photographic verisimilitude permitted by faster processing speeds and more efficient rendering software, appears to be advancing at a quantifiable rate, implying a final destination of absolute simulation, a point where a digital human being can be rendered to a level of detail indistinguishable from actual flesh and bone, and possessing enough (artificial) intelligence to be a star offscreen instead of just a hyperreal cartoon upon it.

So, how can this teleology by questioned? How do we construct a more continuist approach to historicising these spectacles in the face of such persuasive technological progress? By drawing the focus away from the dazzling verisimilitude of illusory technologies and focusing on the conceptual questions which underpin their fascinating surfaces. We can observe antecedents of the virtual actor and note that the same spectacular strategies, prompting the same ontological questions, were in play.

That’s enough self-promotional recapping. I hope you get the message that, whatever actual developments there might be in imaging technologies that can simulate properties of human figures, there is another narrative here. As Lev Manovich put it in The Language of New Media, “throughout the history of computer animation, the simulation of the human figure has served as a yardstick for measuring the progress of the whole field.” So, just to make sure you stay interested, every now and then some industry insider pipes up and tells you that you’re just months away from being fooled into believing in a bit of CGI as a living, breathing person. So, here we go again. Only this week, Image Metrics have announced that they’re very close to the Holy Grail. Take a look at this video of actress Emily O’Brien:

[Find out more about the process, or watch a higher resolution version of the video here.]

Pretty impressive stuff. As you can probably tell, her face has been digitally captured and mapped over her actual face, not because it’s a useful thing to do, but because it puts the digital and the flesh versions of Emily close enough that we can compare them. Presumably, the real benefits of the process will be seen in applications that can map her face onto her stunt double, or onto another actress if Emily, heaven forbid, suffers a terrible accident halfway through shooting a very expensive blockbuster movie. Or it might help our already beloved stars transcend the limits of their own bodies. Here’s the original post I spotted on IMDB:

1 January 2009 1:30 AM, PST

“Silicon Valley is on the verge of producing sophisticated software that will allow motion picture companies to create actors on a computer who are visually indistinguishable from real people, San Jose’s Mercury News reported today (Thursday). In the words of the newspaper, which closely follows the sofware industry, when software engineers finally achieve what it calls “the holy grail of animation,” stars would be able to “keep playing iconic roles even as they aged past the point of believability like Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft or Daniel Radcliffe as Harry Potter.” Rick Bergman, general manager of AMD’s graphics products group, told the Mercury News that his company “is getting real close” to producing computer-generated actors that will look identical to real human beings.”

Does anyone honestly believe that there is a call or a need for technologies for sustaining the shelf lives of these people? Of course not – it’s just a distracting excuse to avoid the real explanation, which is closer to “we’ve got this cool gadget, and we really want to show it off.” I remain skeptical about claims of impending perfection in virtual actors not because the technology isn’t impressive, but because the grand deterministic narrative  of progress is overriding the reality of the situation. One savvy poster over at the Blu-Ray forum says it all in a manner that needs no elaboration from me:

Oh, dear lordy, they (meaning, JU) posted the article here, too…

The same exact article (with different star insertions, hence the ’01 dated Tomb Raider ref) that studios plant once a year by the clock, in the hopes they can finally get that CGI resurrected dead-Karloff-and-Chaney Frankenstein vs. the Wolfman movie going again, because it sounded like such a neat idea back when Forrest Gump shook hands with JFK–
Twelve years, Final Fantasy, and Beowulf later, and they’re STILL trying to sell us on “With virtual actors, we could bring George Burns back from the dead, and he’d look so real!


In case you needed more convincing, I dug up this old article from The Boston Globe, 23rd May 1999. There’s that grail again:

It sounds like a plot from a sci-fi pulp, or an old B movie: A snaggle-toothed scientist toils in the laboratory, perfecting his creation. A touch-up here, a tiny tuck there. But this is not some green-gilled monster from the house of Dr. Frankenstein; it’s a realistic human with shiny hair, glittering teeth, and liquid eyes. The pressure is on to beat other genetic geniuses racing to create human clones. Suddenly, there’s a burst of energy – and voila! – the model comes to life. Blink your eyes, and it’s Marilyn Monroe. Blink again, and it’s James Dean.

This scenario isn’t as far-fetched – or as far off – as it might once have seemed. In this case, the scientists in question are digital doctors: computer programmers developing the software needed to create a photorealistic digital actor, or ”synthespian.” Special-effects wizards have already created convincing digital dinosaurs and dolls, aliens and ants, stuntmen and superheroes. And the two biggest box office draws of the moment – The Mummy and a certain prequel that unfolds in a galaxy far, far away – showcase digital creatures.

So why not digital humans? Why not virtual stars?

”The digital actor has been the Holy Grail forever, since the dawn of 3-D computer animation,” says Brad Lewis, executive producer of visual effects and vice president of Pacific Data Images, the firm that gave life to insects in Antz. ”There’s always been someone trying to do a hand or a face or some aspect of a human being that looked real.”

Some say realistic digital humans will be on-screen within the next five years. These synthespians could be brand-new characters or reincarnations of old legends, long cold in the grave. One Hollywood producer, for instance, is planning a film that would resurrect martial-arts phenomenon Bruce Lee; another is reportedly working on a digital version of an aging screen star (rumored to be Marlon Brando), restoring his youth and making him a contender for a manly role. Another producer got permission to re-create the late George Burns in a film called The Best Man, and a California firm, Virtual Celebrity Productions, has obtained the rights to digitally reproduce a handful of stars, including Marlene Dietrich and W. C. Fields.

wcftorsoHang on. Did I read that correctly? W.C. Fields? I can understand how Dietrich’s pictorial stillness might translate relatively easily to a digital avatar, but is there anyone less suited to a CGI resurrection by the pixel pixies than W.C. Fields?! Well, they gave it a go a few years back with the Gepetto software (nice puppet reference, there) for real-time 3D animation. I can’t say the results were ever going to replace the memory of the real thing, but that’s not really the point. These rumours and promises build anticipation, expectation, and a sense that something is at stake. The defiance of death, age and human inadequacies is just a cover story for the real business of special effects.

Look at the Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The stated aims of the film, in which Brad Pitt’s character ages “backwards”, might be to integrate visual effects so seamlessly that they don’t distract from the character-driven, Oscar-baiting emotional truth of it all, but there’s no getting away from the fact that, by centralising the concept of a spectacular body like Benjamin’s, a magnet for diegetic and extra-diegetic curiosity, the film can’t help but draw attention to the visual effects used to achieve the concept’s visualisation. Pitt’s body becomes a laboratory for all kinds of tricksy bits of CG animation and performance capture, and there’s a complex connection between the fascinated gaze that attaches to the character’s condition, and the one that fixes on the image of a movie star transformed into a recognisable but fundamentally changed series of physiques by means of cinematic tricks. When Benjamin strikes muscleman poses in the mirror, it’s as much about technological display as it is about his own narcissistic enjoyment. The discourses around the futuristic capabilities of digital imaging technologies shape expectations about how a particular special effect is to be viewed and appreciated. There’s an element of promotional hype in play, but by providing a set of measurable goals and projected rationales, the impression given is that special effects are contributing to a worthwhile cause with a pre-determined path, instead of offering random and occasional attractions; it all makes sure that you stay interested, and keep buying a ticket for the next attraction, and then the next. Special effects, like movie stars, exist intertextually – they provide reassuring continuities: we are expected to keep watching how they develop from film to film, how each is an improvement upon the last – so it makes sense that a certain weight of expectation should hand on the predicted hybrid of a special effects movie star, an all-digital, perhaps artificially intelligent character actor who passes for flesh and blood before your very eyes. But to truly deliver on that promise to deceive would defeat the object of the special effect, which was to attract and hold that multi-focus spectatorial gaze. What’s the use of a spectacular attraction if nobody notices it?


See also How Special Effects Work 1: The Sandman & How Special Effects Work 3: Now That’s Magic…

Lisa Bode, ‘“Grave Robbing” or “Career Comeback”? On the Digital Resurrection of Dead Screen Stars’, in History of Stardom Reconsidered. Edited by Hannu Salmi et al. (Turku: International Institute for Popular Culture, 2007) Available as an eBook at