James Dean, the latest victim of nonconsensual digital re-creation

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Credit: Kongsberg

Angus Gillies
Deputy Culture Editor – Film and TV

Cast in a new action film, should we be worried about the lack of ethics needed to recreate actors?

The last few months have given an alarming contemporary significance to the phrase “turn in one’s grave”. James Dean, counterculture icon and the star of classics Rebel Without A Cause and East of Eden, died in a head-on car collision on September 30 1955, at only 24 years old. Like most people this age, he had not written a will. None of his earnings went to the aunt and uncle who raised him, but sadly, his entire estate was inherited by his estranged father, whom Dean had not seen since he was nine years old.

Until recently, this was a model example in the value of early estate planning. But something as bizarre as it is unsettling has just been announced that has elevated the importance of this story to each and every one of us. James Dean, who has been deceased for 65 years this September, has been cast in a film. Not a documentary, but an action film, based on the Vietnam war. The director, known for critically-panned exploitation-action films, unironically told The Hollywood Reporter: “We searched high and low for the perfect character to portray the role of Rogan, and after months of research, we decided on James Dean”. His father’s family, last in the news for unsuccessfully trying to sue individual Twitter users for posting images of James Dean without their permission, declared “The family views this as his fourth movie, a movie he never got to make.”

You are probably not as unfamiliar with this as you may think. The film plans on using the same technology used to recreate Peter Cushing in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, as well as the younger version of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher). Like data, once your image is handed over you lose all control of how it is used. In our hyper-mediated present where we never know how many people have saved a photo of us without us knowing; sent embarrassing videos we did not know existed; or how many private companies and government institutions have our photo-likeness on their database, and we are very familiar with these issues. But to construct entirely new situations that we had no consent to being in has much graver connotations for the future that we need to debate now.

This necromantic act of digital resurrection is the relative of deepfake technology, where videos and media can be produced that imitate people saying and doing things that they would likely never do. Jordan Peele’s short piece “You Won’t Believe What Obama Says In This Video 😉 made light of it, having a stunningly realistic-looking Obama calling Donald Trump “A total and complete dipshit”, before asking the audience to “stay woke, bitches.” But a more ominous example of this technology came recently when a Belgian socialist party created a video of Trump where, looking directly into the camera, he asked the Belgian people to leave the Paris Climate Agreement on his authority. Despite being an attention-seeking act, it was disseminated widely on social media with appropriate fury. Deepfake technology is usually used even more sordidly. It is commonly being used in porn. Free software is available that allows people to create involuntary pornography, in a visceral exploitation of women’s privacy to superimpose faces onto the bodies of women in pornographic films. It does not take much imagination to recognise how terrifying this is, and how we need to figure out how to combat this now.

But you are probably not of celebrity status, nor are you an esteemed actor, so why care? As we can see with each Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat update, our likeness is becoming more easily packaged up for use. Technology will continue to change our experience of human existence, but we urgently need to arrange an estate-planning appointment with our digital existence. Before his tragic suicide in 2014, Robin Williams banned any digital recreation of his image until 2040, ahead of the current curve of celebrities that are seeking to protect themselves from the future. If you want to film somebody, you need their permission. But if you have not written a contract detailing this, all anyone needs, in James Dean’s case, is a money-hungry family who have no care for closure, intimacy, or dignity.

We are all soon to be at the mercy of fake, digitised version of ourselves. For an actor who was born in 1931 and would never have had a chance to predict this technology, on top of being an icon of counter-culture and the rejection of authoritative institutional control, to see him abused in this fashion is deeply upsetting. Alternatives to capitalism are apparently becoming unimaginable to us in our present day, but we forget that the system has a lucid imagination itself when it comes to us.