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Erol Vekil Headshot

Digital Actors Are Coming To A Theatre Near You

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Our work at our office is based on creating immersive and virtual reality gestural worlds. We use it for all kinds of purposes, like entertainment, therapy or even advertising. Although we do not produce content for the movie industry, it's not hard for me to foresee a very near future when movie directors would have their total cast made up of lifelike digital actors and actresses who would not only act how they were scripted to, but also not get a penny for their work.

I'm sure that will catch the attention of the Screen Actors Guild. Sound like a familiar threat? Think of disruptive technologies such as robots in manufacturing plants and cars without drivers.

Most probably in the next decade, all a casting director would need to do is to describe to an illustrator the traits and looks of the character she wants and ask him to draw some quick sketches on 3D software. A realistic digital actor could be created in a matter of weeks, and programmed to talk, walk and act the way the director or screenwriter has envisioned it (him/her?) to do so.

Databases of millions of faces, voices, gestures and motions could be scanned and selected at the click of a button. If you want a remake of the famous Sergio Leone Western and pick the cast, go to categories and select from the drop down menu: good, bad or ugly. You want to customize further? Sure, use the add tool for heavier eyebrows or to intensify the grim look.

Many cinematic technologies used to create special effects are actually still lagging behind despite a few improvements. One example is the post-production chroma key technology (green screen in layman terms, used to immerse the character into any background you envisioned) which has been around one way or another for decades to create immersive worlds.

Although the viewer's experience is much better now because of the improvements of software and digital optics around this technology, the Supermen of today still hurl themselves into the sky as Christopher Reeve did in the 80s.

The ability to create digitally a flawless, lifelike person is not a big step away from today's 3D animated movies like the ingenious Avatar. The technology is actually here and just needs more commitment put into it with regards to dedicated software development and efficient computing.

Improvement is the requisite rather than a major breakthrough.

Are we talking about giving up watching Angelina Jolie? Would all the top-notch programming in the world be able to duplicate the mind of an actor in preparation for the role? When a good actress looks into the mirror and rehearses her lines, doesn't she rely on her intuition, emotions and experience in guiding her to portray the character she is soon about to play, traits which cannot be woven into a digital character no matter how high the level of programming is?

The actor has the script and the director will do his best to visualize it and oversee the artistic and dramatic effects, but what about the self-improvisation or the spark or magnetic pull that may need to come with the character: the odd nod, the wry smile, the seductive look or the questioning raise of the eyebrow?

Did anyone really tell The Big Bang Theory's Sheldon Cooper to mimic and act exactly how he does, especially when he hilariously continues with his lines, totally unaware of the nuances of his friends' conversations and not being able to differentiate between sarcasm and simple comments?

If the script writer and programmer cannot assign originality, ingenuity or individuality (pick your word) to his virtual character, fast forward another decade, won't artificial intelligence be able to do so? Stephen Hawking has posited that intelligence may accelerate at a pace which will outstrip human capabilities in the near future.

Some say that will never happen, but a computer recently played a very intricate game of Go against a master player and won. Just like in a chess game, it scanned a huge database of previous games and moves, but it also actually figured out how to win by example and experience.

Add another decade and imagine what a quantum computer working on a sub-atomic level could do, not even having to rely on the basic principles of today's computing.

Many renowned writers and scientists have playfully envisioned that computers could do even more. When I was in my early teen years, I read in one of Asimov's science fiction stories that computers gradually networked and evolved throughout human history, and remained as a single entity of energy in hyperspace even when all stars faded away.

This energy ball computer, with its nearly infinite database of knowledge accumulated throughout billions of years, continued in its quest to seek solutions to the regression of the universe and then finally one day, it said: "And let there be light, and there was light." This reference to the Book of Genesis implying that human-built software was "The Creator" gives me goosebumps to this very day.

So can we someday have a virtual big guy with a European accent in a phone booth frantically searching the Yellow Pages for Sarah Connor? If he was conceptualized to look exactly like Arnold Schwarzenegger, then probably it should be very easy to create him since the real one looks unrealistic anyway. But seriously, can it be done?

My answer is "yes."

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