Synthespians get ready for their close-up

Sunday, July 7, 2002
By Peter Howell 

They smile seductively from the page and from glowing screens, the picture of sassy confidence.

Free of wrinkles and cellulite, firm of bust and chin, long of leg and lean of form, they meet and even exceed society's unforgiving standards of female beauty. They are perfect women, or virtually so.

There is only one catch. They aren't real.

Moviegoers have been flocking this summer to Attack Of The Clones, the latest chapter in the Star Wars series. It is meant as science fiction, but in a digital sense, the clone army is already amongst us, invading every aspect of popular culture.

Computer-generated goddesses- they're nearly always women- are replacing people in movies, TV shows, advertisements and on the Web. Many of them are so lifelike, so unlike the exaggerations of cartoon or game figures, a casual observer could easily mistake them for human.

As the technology continues to advance, it will become ever harder to discern the difference. Hollywood and high-tech innovators are busily experimenting with 3-D synthetic actors- dubbed "synthespians"- who can perform alongside human actors, perhaps recreating such long-dead stars as Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich.

Digital Beauties, a recent coffee-table book by the German publishing house Taschen, reveals how far the art of digital cloning has gone. Its more than 560 glossy pages, compiled by Julius Wiedemann, feature the work of 100 digital artists from around the globe, tracking the advance of the virtual human.

"It's about time you got to know some of the 'people' you'll be coming across in the future, on TV and even in film," Wiedemann says in his introduction.

In Japan, a digital model called Ryoko, created by an artist known only as YAMAG, has become a multimedia wonder. Her shy smile and bikini-clad figure have appeared in books, magazines, videos and DVDs, an instant hit in a culture long familiar with the imaginary vixens of anime films and manga comics. Ryoko has her own line of clothes and cosmetics, and her own fan clubs. Seeking to turn Ryoko into an international supermodel, YAMAG is promoting her to cosmetic companies and fashion magazines. He hopes she'll move to Paris someday soon.

Ryoko has competition from Webbie Tookay, the creation of Australia's Steven Stahlberg, one of the most celebrated of computer artists. When Webbie was unveiled three years ago as the world's first digital fashion model, she was signed to the Elite Model Agency. She has appeared on countless TV shows and in such newspapers as the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. Stahlberg's Web site ( is a virtual model hangout. Besides Webbie, it also features a "virtual desktop assistant" named Jade and "cyber customer service agents" representing women of various races- all of them smiling.

The leaps in technology become more apparent when real actresses are the subject. U.S. artist Glenn Dean, also featured in Digital Beauties, turned the tables on Angelina Jolie, who performed as legendary game heroine Lara Croft in last year's live-action movie adventure Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. Dean has crafted a synthespian version of Jolie that could fool almost anyone, were it not for the blankness of her stare. The circle is closed: The synthetic Jolie is every bit the unreal woman that Lara Croft is.

The ethics and economics of digital cloning become much more complicated when talk turns to waking the dead for cinematic encores, as opposed to creating all-new characters for modelling or marketing.

Daniel Robichaud, a top Hollywood digital animator originally from Montreal, has created Digital Marlene, an amazing recreation of the late German screen siren Marlene Dietrich. She can be seen and heard, with vintage film-noir look and attitude, on Robichaud's animation-heavy Web site (

"Want to know what really separates ze man from ze boy?" the Dietrich clone purrs, batting her long eyelashes. "Skill. It's all about skill."

It's actually much more than that, admits Robichaud, whose film credits include work on Titanic and Apollo 13. He created Digital Marlene for Virtual Celebrity Productions, a now-defunct California firm that had planned to digitally revive a host of dead stars, including Dietrich, Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Groucho Marx and Sammy Davis Jr.

Digital Marlene was a great calling card for Virtual Celebrity Productions, Robichaud said, but the company foundered when it failed to find a major market for its synthespians. It seems that movie studios and moviegoers alike are not quite ready for a world where dead stars rise up like zombies to entertain us anew. People can still detect that there is no soul within the machine.

"I do not believe that we will ever replace actors with computer-generated stand-ins," Robichaud said via e-mail.

"Not even because of technical or economical restrictions, but because what makes an actor (or any person, for that matter) unique is not their physical envelope, but their inner life, their persona, their acting style. It is already possible to recreate the image of any person digitally. But bringing that image to life is where the challenge resides."

Filmmakers are equally wary of synthespians, even such forward thinkers as David Cronenberg, whose 1983 movie Videodrome predicted the coming world of the "new flesh" of digital skin and electric blood. He's in no hurry to see virtual versions of Marilyn Monroe or Humphrey Bogart make sequels to Gentlemen Prefer Blondes or The Maltese Falcon.

"It wouldn't be the same as working with Marilyn or Bogie," the Toronto director said in an interview. "For me, filmmaking is very physical and tactile and sculptural. I like to actually have the actors there. I like to give them a nice big kiss in the morning. I like the warm bodies.

"Doing everything digitally is quite another kind of thing. It's more like graphic art or something. It's quite a different kind of filmmaking. Videodrome itself was all physical; all the effects were very physical. I've really only done a few digital effects shots in my life. I'm interested in the technology, definitely, but where your creativity comes from is quite a different place. I've never really been interested in being a techno-trailblazer."

The lesson of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within gives those who would be techno-trailblazers reason to hit the "pause" button. Based on a popular role-playing game, and the product of four years of research and development, the movie by Hollywood innovator Square Pictures was expected to be one of the runaway hits of last summer.

The film's main character, designed in part by another Montreal artist, Rene Morel, was a scientific avenger named Dr. Aki Ross. The character was so realistic that you could see individual strands of her hair move in the wind. Ross was featured by the men's magazine Maxim on the cover of its "Hot 100" supplement, for which she was given a bikini and a bust enlargement. (You could tell by her scowl she didn't like it.)

Despite the advance hype, Final Fantasy crashed and burned at the box office, and so did Square Pictures a few months later. Everyone praised the realistic look of the characters, but few could figure out the film's complicated plot. The lack of a good story, not the bounty of digital effects, was the reason for Final Fantasy's failure, says Digital Beauties author Wiedemann.

"My personal feeling is that people rarely embrace technology because it is great or fun or innovative," he said.

"People like movies because of the story or the actors. ... The Final Fantasy producers believed too much that the CGI (computer-generated images) aspect could drive people to the cinema."

Still, Wiedemann adds, the film achieved a breakthrough in digital realism that will lead to future advances.

"They did a pioneering job. I believe that the most important thing that came out of the movie was the creation of knowledge. Thousands of people were involved, and they made 1,300 plug-ins for the software. It was a historical achievement."

Hope springs eternal in laboratories around the world, where reanimating Marilyn Monroe- who died 40 years ago this summer- has become something of a Holy Grail quest for digital boffins. Just last week, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced that they had perfected speech recognition software to allow a digitally recreated Monroe to coo the song "Hunter" by Dido, the pop tart du jour. (Whether or not this feat was artistically desirable seems beside the point.)

Marilyn Monroe is also the fascination of Miralab, a virtual simulation research facility at the University of Geneva in Switzerland. Miralab has made several short films starring Monroe, including Marilyn By Lake Geneva, a 1995 example of how to convincingly mix synthespians with real people in a single scene. The film, which you can view at Miralab's Web site (, shows men ogling Monroe as she sashays past.

The director of Miralab is yet another Canadian, Prof. Nadia Magnenat Thalmann, also from Montreal. Unlike others interviewed for this story, Thalmann would be happy to see a virtual Marilyn Monroe and other screen favourites star in new movies. But she would limit the cloning to stars already judged to be immortal by moviegoers. The topic will be amongst the many discussions at a virtual reality conference Miralab is hosting this fall.

"Stars are legends, and we can simulate them as they are, always beautiful," Thalmann said. "Let us dream."

The dream of reborn legends is already here, as far as marketers are concerned. This month, the late martial arts movie star Bruce Lee comes to life as the virtual star of a Microsoft Xbox game called Bruce Lee: Quest Of The Dragon, a rare example of a male synthespian at work.

A more practical use for the technology, Thalmann said, is for museum exhibits, like the one Miralab is currently developing for Pompeii, the ancient Roman city swallowed by volcanic ash and lava in the year 79 A.D. Miralab is creating virtual citizens for a Pompeii multimedia presentation, allowing visitors to see what a typical day looked like before a catastrophic eruption consigned the town to history.

Robichaud's Digital Marlene is also doing tourism duty. She's currently on display in Berlin, giving come-hither looks at a Dietrich museum.

It may still be some time before synthespians and cloning are as accepted in the movies as they are in other aspects of pop culture. But Wiedemann is convinced it's only a matter of time, and he sounds like an old-style Hollywood director in his enthusiasm for the idea.

"People want to laugh, they want to cry, and they want to be happy," he said. "If this will be a way to achieve those things, it will be successful for sure."