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Artificial actors

Bill Muller The Arizona Republic

In Hollywood, Christopher Nolan is as rare as a white rhino – an action director who doesn’t like computer effects. After all, it’s hard to imagine doing a comic-book movie like “Batman Begins” without using as much CGI as “Spider-Man,” “X-Men” or “Star Wars.”

But Nolan is a throwback who likes doing things for real.

“I think it’s an intensely artificial medium,” Nolan says of CGI, or computer-generated imagery.

He acknowledges using computer effects in “Batman Begins,” but only to re-create things actually done with wires and stuntmen.

“We did all kinds of tricks but we tried to absolutely minimize the (three-dimensional) computer graphics animation that has become ubiquitous in summer movies over the last 10 years,” he says.

That makes “Batman Begins” the anti-“Star Wars.” Director George Lucas often replaced actors, either whole or in part, with computer-generated images.

And summer moviegoers doubtless will see more of the same in such action films as “Fantastic Four” (July 8), “The Island” (July 22) and “Stealth” (July 29).

Which leads to the question: Can actors be replaced with digital replicas?

In 2001, the makers of “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within” tried just that by casting simulated thespians with voices supplied by Alec Baldwin, Ming-Na, James Woods and others. The movie failed, in part because the CGI characters were close enough to human to unsettle audiences.

A year later, the idea served as the plot of “Simone,” a film starring Al Pacino as a producer who’s weary of working with divas, so he invents an entirely CGI actress. Given the movie’s tiny draw at the box office, no one seemed interested in the concept.

Predictably, actors aren’t crazy about it, either.

Matt Dillon, who’s starring in “Herbie: Fully Loaded” (opening Wednesday), was approached a few years ago to do a “Final Fantasy”-like project.

“They were really excited because they were creating a film where they were going to create actual humans,” Dillon says.

“I said, ‘I don’t want any part of this. I don’t want my voice to be on another human being who’s supposed to be kind of real.’ I thought it was kind of freaky. I didn’t like it.”

Dillon doesn’t see CGI actors as a threat.

“I don’t think anything can replace a performance, no more than animated movies are (a threat),” he says. “It’s not convenient, economically, to do that, for one thing, and it’s not going to be as good.”

It might be comforting to believe that a humanistic ethic is keeping studios from creating CGI actors, but it’s really more economics.

Rick McCallum, producer of “Star Wars, Episode III – Revenge of the Sith,” says as much when asked whether he and Lucas considered adding a CGI Han Solo (originally played by Harrison Ford) to “Revenge of the Sith.”

“Jar Jar (Binks, a CGI character first seen in ‘The Phantom Menace’) cost more than Tom Cruise gets,” McCallum says. “I don’t know anybody who’s interested in trying to re-create an actor. It’s too expensive.”

And besides, he adds, “I think for both of us (he and Lucas), that’s way too creepy.”

Lucas is one of the few filmmakers rich enough to ignore economic concerns. But although he’s known as an action director with little knack for working with actors, he says it’s the acting that will keep CGI actors limited to action sequences and other stunt work.

“We’ve never been able to teach a computer to act,” Lucas says. “It’s a talent, it’s a skill, it’s something you learn, it’s something you’re born with, and I don’t see in the foreseeable future that computers can become human enough in their artificial intelligence to have the same crazed psychology you need in order to relate to other people so you can emotionally express ideas.”

Oscar winner Morgan Freeman, who plays inventor Lucius Fox in “Batman Begins,” is more succinct: “Never going to work,” he says flatly.

Paul Giamatti, who’s starring in the 1930s boxing film “Cinderella Man” with Russell Crowe, is less dismissive of simulated thespians, saying they lead to a new form of acting.

“I think about the dude in ‘Lord of the Rings,’ the guy who played Gollum (Andy Serkis),” Giamatti says. “I actually think it’s kind of cool in a weird way. It really is about that guy’s performance, even though it’s not him at all.”

Back at the bat cave, director Nolan says he considers CGI a trap.

“For my money, I’ve just become frustrated with the type of big blockbuster filmmaking where these days, literally, you’ll see the ad for the film come on and you’ll think it’s the ad for the video game,” says Nolan, whose other films include “Memento” and “Insomnia.”

“For a brief couple of seconds, there will be that little confusion because video games are getting pretty damned good-looking and films are getting worse- and worse-looking, and they’re going to meet somewhere in the middle.”

As computer effects grow cheaper and are seen more on TV, he adds, they lose potency: “The fact that in your big movie they’re done at a high resolution, no one cares, it’s still the same stuff, it’s the same level of artificiality, so it ceases to have the cachet, it ceases to have the feeling of hugeness.”

Nolan says he tried to make “Batman Begins,” which explains how Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) turns into Batman, as real as possible by turning to his favorite action films, including the original “Star Wars,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and such Bond films as “The Spy Who Loved Me.”

“I’m looking at it going, ‘They’re not doing it right anymore,’ ” he says. “So I know there aren’t going to be any other films this summer where they actually try to do all this stuff for real, because filmmakers don’t seem interested in doing that anymore.”

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