Philip Seymour Hoffman’s Final Performance Will Be Digitally Created


Friday, March 07, 2014

When Philip Seymour Hoffman died last month, he was still in the process of filming the final The Hunger Games movie. Hoffman plays Plutarch Heavensbee, the mastermind behind the Games. Instead of a rewrite to accommodate the missing scenes, the film’s producers are attempting a 21st century solution: creating new footage of Hoffman using all the tools of computer animation.

The filmmakers aren't discussing their work publicly. But Steve Preeg, a veteran special effects supervisor at Digital Domain, thinks their most difficult challenge will be navigating the so-called uncanny valley. Even the most sophisticated computer-generated humans may have something subtly off — “a distant stare, or discolored skin” — that viewers find repulsive.

Preeg is an expert in creating virtual humans — from the backwards aging Benjamin Button (for which he won an Oscar) to Jeff Bridges's 35-year-old doppelganger in TRON: Legacy. Working on both films, Preeg had the benefit of being able to create a high resolution digital scan of the actors' heads, and drawing on their in-studio performances. He says if the team behind The Hunger Games doesn’t have a scan of Hoffman's head and body, they're going to have to animate him from scratch, requiring “a lot of artistic interpretation.” The digital images would be mapped onto a body double, who might also be the actor impersonating Hoffman for the lines. "People don't necessary realize the body motion and body language is extremely tied to the voice performance and head motion," Preeg tells Kurt Andersen. "One of the things I think they're going to be facing — which I'm not sure how you would ever solve — is what would Philip Seymour Hoffman have brought to that role that day while filming? That's something no one can ever answer."

Even if the filmmakers are able to create a near-perfect Hoffman, Preeg suspects there will be doubters. “There will be people who buy into it, there will be people who don’t,” he says. “If they do it justice and everyone’s on board, and even if you could ask him ‘are you OK with this’ and he said ‘yes,’ they’ll be people who will say this is immoral.”

→ Is creating a digital version of Philip Seymour Hoffman ethically dubious, or just show business? Tell us in a Comment below.


Video: Steve Preeg and Eric Barda create a young Jeff Bridges for TRON: Legacy

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Steve Preeg

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Eric Molinsky

Comments [20]

Stefan D-W from Seattle

I'm interested in how this shapes our perception of an image on a screen more than the emotional attachments we assign to a particular individual whom most of us have never met, or the legal and business implications of the project.

Our ability to effectively portray the artificial as real is a measure of our understanding of ourselves. That same understanding serves to produce better performance whether the performing object is a moving image, spliced and shopped into big screen perfection or it is the flesh and blood performing object of the actor on stage. I hope that the ways in which this project fails and succeeds will help us better understand ourselves and the functioning of the human body as performing object. In short, I hope that the analysis of this project leads to better acting--just as PSH "would've wanted".

I applaud the bravery of this experiment, especially given the enormous financial stakes, and I hope the movie will be good enough that we, the audience, won't spend the entire time trying to figure out which scenes are CGI. With any luck we'll get caught up in a story that attempts to say something true about who we are, where we're going and how we'll respond.

Come to think of it, this is downright meta. The Hunger Games has as much to do with Jean Genet's The Balcony as Theseus and the Minotaur. It is the story of the struggle to manage image, to integrate public expectations and personal truth. This CGI PSH is emblematic of that struggle, one which each of us deals with increasingly in our world of digital avatars. They're not trying to turn Hoffman into the gay lover of his playwright friend, they're trying to remain true to Hoffman's interpretation of his character's truth, just as any editor and director do with the collage of takes they get from shooting live actors.

Apr. 08 2014 10:57 AM

Does anybody remember the freaky looking daughter of Bella in the Twilight Series? Renesmee Cullen was obviously made CGI and looked very not right to my wife and I. They could have easily just gotten different actresses for the younger Renesnee, but instead superimposed the older actress' face on younger CGI bodies. Bad move.

Mar. 23 2014 02:05 AM

In this case I think the money issue comes from a different place. I'm guessing that many people will want to see the movie to judge which scenes are real and which are computer generated, and the producers are counting on the buzz of using the cutting edge of technology AND Hoffman's cache.
The presence of an actor so esteemed in the industry is even more of a draw now that he has passed away in his prime.

Mar. 11 2014 11:25 AM
David Zweifler from New York

Putting the tasteless, ghoulish aspects of this aside, the industry, and SAG, should really think about what this means for talent. If the producers pull this off at an acceptable level of quality, how long will producers continue to pay huge premiums for live meat in front of screens. I could imagine a world not too long from now where a few dozen nameless, faceless actors contracted to studios get re-skinned with an on-screen avatar. (Take a look at how voice talent - not celebrities but full-time voice talent - is treated for a comparable.)

Mar. 11 2014 10:18 AM
Peter from Baldwin

I guess it comes down to how much of a performance they got from Hoffman already. I think if he locked down a sufficient amount of his performance, some creative screenplay changes and rewrites along with a few non-speaking virtual elements is acceptable in finishing his role. However, if his role is going to be generated 100% from scratch, that's not even remotely acceptable.

Mar. 10 2014 12:21 PM
Shay from Atlanta

I think it is fair to assume that PSH signed on for the script and therefore would have approved of whatever may have been left to film. It also sounds like there was not a whole lot left to do so we are not talking about an entire fabrication of his role - probably just a few scenes.

Having said that, whoever posted that insurance would cover the cost to recast the role is correct. Every single one of those actors is insured in the even of death or injury and it would not cost them much - if anything - to re-shoot with a different person altogether. The time and effort is a whole other issue though and I don't think the producers would be keen to put off the release until after all of that was redone. The bottom line is their main priority after all.

Mar. 09 2014 05:05 PM
Mark Schuyler from Brooklyn, New York

Easy Peasy - use the Terry Gilliam option - sub-suspend our dis-disbelief.

Mar. 09 2014 01:00 PM

So did working on The Hunger Games cause him to take up drugs again? Didn't he only recently go back to heroin after 30 years or something? The Hunger Games must have been an abysmal project.

Mar. 09 2014 11:28 AM
gdl from NYC

.. I vote 'NO!'. emphatically. if for no other reason than Philip Seymour Hoffman was revered for and self-admittedly devoted to 'Truth' in performance !

far more interesting- differently challenging- and moving, I believe, if handled with grace and creativity- would be for the director to work around Hoffman's absence.
- either rewrite the entire scene(s) to not include Plutarch Heavensbee..
- or make it that he is in disguise (?) and hire another actor..
- or film a blank space.. in his honor ?! (would also be a first, in movie history?)
- or only film those around him and hire another actor to imitate Hoffman's voice (though, again, said actor would not be able to make the same interpretive 'choices' that Hoffman would..)
- or .. ?! saluting the creativity of a probably extremely creative team !

Mar. 09 2014 11:23 AM
Walter Moyer from WARNER , N.H.


Mar. 09 2014 11:18 AM
Mark from Nwe York

No! No! A thousand time no! Can't we just let someone rest in peace? I swear I'm becoming more and more convinced that the digital revolution has been a disaster in so many ways and will continue to be a nightmare.

Mar. 09 2014 08:33 AM
Doug Krentzlin from Silver Spring, MD

By the way, anyone who claims that THE HUNGER GAMES producers are only "protecting their investment" is betraying a profound ignorance of how the film industry works. Except for shoestring productions, all movies are required to be insured, a practice that goes back to the dawn of filmmaking. One of the main reasons for that insurance is to cover the costs of recasting and reshootiung if one of the actors becomes unavailable to complete their role, whether the reason be death or severe injury. It wouldn't cost producers one cent to recast Hoffman's role because the insurance company would pick up the tab.

Mar. 08 2014 08:38 PM
Doug Krentzlin from Silver Spring, MD

Oh, and "preserving the actor's last performance" was the same self-serving justification for keeping Vic Morrow's segment in THE TWILIGHT ZONE movie after director John Landis' reckless disregard for safety had gotten Morrow and and the two Vietnamese kids killed on the set. It was sickeningly grotesque then and it still is now.

Mar. 08 2014 06:22 PM
Doug Krentzlin from Silver Spring, MD

"Just because you CAN do something doesn't mean you SHOULD do it."
-- Jeff Goldblum, JURASSIC PARK

Mar. 08 2014 06:16 PM
Doug Krentzlin from Silver Spring, MD

What part of "recasting a role" do you film industry sycophants not get?

Mar. 08 2014 06:14 PM

He intended to finish his part in the hunger games so yes I think it's right.

Mar. 08 2014 03:19 PM

Let's set moral issues aside, because that's an argument similar to stem cell research.

From a business perspective it's reasonable and fair. If they've invested much of the storyline around his character, and completed most of the subsequent filming, why not? That said, his family should be fairly compensated, and paid for Mr. Hoffman's appearance.

From a technical perspective, this is pretty mind blowing. Still, even the best computer generated image can't capture the nuanced expertise of acting. RIP.

Mar. 08 2014 02:27 PM
Doug Krentzlin from Silver Spring, MD

One more reason to avoid THE HUNGER GAMES movies like the plague. I, for one, refuse to see any movies or TV shows that use an actor's "participation" without their consent. (And, no, I don't give a damn whether the actor's estate claims that the actor would've approved.) This ghoulish crap is beyond greedy or unethical, downright evil would be a more accurate term.

Mar. 08 2014 02:20 PM
Miguel Cruz from Fort Worth, TX

I think this is a special case. It was a movie that was deep into production. The alternative would be to recast and reshoot and lose 100% of Philip Seymour Hoffman's performance.I always find it more distracting when a different actor plays a role originated by a different actor. I never quite bought that Rachel in the Dark Knight was the same person from Batman Begins. Now if 10 years from now we're getting new Philip Seymour Hoffman movies using this technology then maybe there's an ethical problem.

Mar. 08 2014 09:53 AM
Laura Pritchard from Doylestown PA

I think it's wrong. I always hated those commercials that used images of dead actors. They have no say over the final product. PSH was a perfectionist. His image should not be used when he can't approve it.

Mar. 08 2014 07:15 AM

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