Notes | The memory of perfection: Digital faces and nostalgic franchise cinema

Posted on Aug 1, 2022

Source:…| Author: Dan Golding | Date: July 28, 2021


Dan Golding examines the digital face as it exists within contemporary franchise films. He examines how the process of digitally de-aging the living or resurrecting the dead acts as a tie to the viewer’s past but is also, necessarily, a notation upon the audiences’ relationship to the present.


The penultimate sentence of the abstract catches my attention with, “… digital faces are creative, technical and financial decisions above all.” Yes, faces are clearly financial decisions, especially in Hollywood, but someone saying so pointedly and in the context of CGI makes the point more salient somehow.

The examples for de-aging that the author leads with are all from science fiction/fantasy films (Rogue One, Blade Runner 2049, and Tron Legacy). Notable that these aren’t just any science fiction pieces but franchises/intellectual property that is laden with cultural prominence.

More specifically these are relics of the late 70s/early 80s. A period that seems to have ruled over society for far longer than they deserve.

“This is a bequeathal of sorts, from older generations of cast, crew and audiences, to younger generations, but usually with the obvious financial end game of creating renewable franchises that need not perish with their concluded hero’s journeys or retiring stars, and that instead that these series might become what Wired described Star Wars under Disney as: ‘the forever franchese’ (Rogers, 2015). “ (Golding, 3).

The de-aged face does appear outside of these “legacy films” and in television shows as well. Golding points to it as a technique that is heavily tied to the serialized narrative. It’s expanded outside of legacy films like Star Wars and found its way into things like Gemini Man and The Irishman.

Golding specifically calls these films out as a category all their own

“I will not be discussing any of these three films in detail in this article, and they are not in any meaningful sense serial narratives. However, it is worth noting that, in the case of Gemini Man and the The Irishman in particular, the digital faces involved attend to the cinematic past and the careers of key creatives involved (Martin Scorsese, Robert De Niro, and Will Smith) in a way reminiscent of seriality and the legacy film’s multi-decade generations.” (Golding, 4).

“The digital face, like other technologically enabled tools of seriality from older eras of media, such as the novel, or radio play, is an embodiment of a particular kind of narrative culture that values an aesthetic of links between fragments and massed story formations.” (Golding, 4).

These films seek to draw a direct link between the original and its current incarnation (this is the case with The Force Awakens, Jurassic World, and Creed). Golding notes that, “Though these new films provide frictionless entry points for naïve audiences, older or returning viewers are asked to watch these films through the lens of their own memory.” (Golding, 4).

The nostalgia invoked by these forms of media clearly have something to do with ascendant fascism. The yearning for a past that never existed is made manifest through these films. Grafton Tanner’s work would likely overlap very well with this paper.

“In this case Fisher’s digital face - painstakingly created by Lucasfilm’s Industrial Light and Magic - is a façade, an illusory mask from the past given legitimacy y the lineage that it simultaneously hides and draws power from. In the legacy film, history is written on the face. ” (Golding, 5).

Lineage as authenticity seems inherently anti-democratic. As though we are returning to a rule by nobles who gained their positions by dint of their birth rather than anything approaching democracy.

Showing the aged faces of the (largely male) actors is a symbol of authenticity when juxtaposed to the digital, de-aged face. These de-aged women are often not their own stand ins where the opposite is true for men (Golding, 6).

Svetlana Boym: “fantasies of the past determined by needs of the present.” (6)

“Accordingly, digital faces are crative, technical and financial decisions above all. It is labour, returning to the past” (Golding, 6).

Andy Serkis and (synthespians).

On the distinction between watching the performance of an actor portraying King Kong or Maz Kanata vs Grand Moff Tarkin:

”…audiences watch watch the CGI Tarkin in Rogue One or Rachael in Blade Runner 2049 with a very different sense of performance. This is not the expansive, creative assessment of believability or verisimilitude that it placed on a fantastic CGI creation like a King Kong, a Gollum, or a Maz Kanata, but instead a judgement about whether or a ghostly apparition, perceived in the audience’s memory or as much as on the screen in front of them, has been successfully invoked. For these audiences, there is an often unshakeable recollection of what the ‘original’ performanced looked and moved and sounded like –not the performance on set in motion capture suits, but the cinematic original from decades past which has often been watched and rewatched many times. It is in this gap of memory and actuality that the spectacle of the digital face is created.” (Golding, 7).

Rogue One inserted a Tarkin that looked like the 1977 version but because of the lighting, it ended up being a somewhat jarring digital recreation. The author notes that though they used approximations of the 1977 lighting, he was inserted into scenes with the contemporary atmospheric lighting of 2016. (Golding 7,8). Because of this the reanimated Tarkin is a creature wholly of the 2016 moment.

Golding notes that while time and expense are a barrier to this practice taking place writ large, cinema going audiences possess a distaste for this technique and barriers outside of cost may exist (8).

In the US there is no legal recognition of the right to control one’s image after death.

“That well-known actors in major franchises, who form significant roles in popular culture and memory, die, and are then digitally resurrected is significant as it provides a kind of collective venue for understanding mourning and memory.” (Golding, 10)

The power of masks and how many of the most important moments in the film come through the removal of the mask (Golding, 11).

Films and Television Referenced

Rogue One (2016)
Blade Runner 2049 (2017)
Tron Legacy (2010)
Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
The Mandalorian (2019-)
Captain America: Civil War (2016)
Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)
Captain Marvel (2019)
Batman Begins (2005)
Star Trek Generations (1994)
The Color of Money (1986)
Stark Trek: The Next Generation (1987 -1994)
Star Trek (2009)
Jurassic World
Terminator Genisys
Kingsmen: The Golden Circle (2017)
In Chapter Two
Le Bureau des Legendes (2015-Present)
Gemini Man (2019)
The Irishman (2019)
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008)
Star Wars: A New Hope (1977)
Rocky (1976)
Jurassic Park (1993) Return of the Jedi
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Furious 7

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