‘Reality is in the performance’: Issues of Digital Technology, Simulation and Artificial Acting in S1mOne – Anna Notaro

Cinema is the most beautiful fraud in the world.
(Jean-Luc Godard)
Our ability to manufacture fraud now exceeds our capacity to detect it.
(Viktor Taransky)/

Abstract This essay is concerned with the use of digital technologies in Hollywood cinema to argue that they perpetuate the illusionism and verisimilitude of its representations. An initial discussion of the use of digital technology in the cinema will provide the basis for an historical account of the move from avant-garde experiments in virtual, or non-human performance. Such a history is then contrasted with Hollywood appropriations of digital technologies, and its elaboration of a virtual performer – represented in a film like S1mOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) – which is put in the service of such naturalism and illusionism. In order to appreciate their relevance, the above arguments are placed within the broader contexts of digitization, simulation and virtuality as theorized, among others, by Umberto Eco and Jean Baudrillard.

It was exactly thirty three years ago that Umberto Eco, following a trip to America, wrote Travels in Hyperreality. Three years later Baudrillard’s “La précession des simulacres” (1978) came out, thus marking the emergence of the ‘age of simulation’. Since then a lot of water has flowed under the bridge of critical debate, and yet some of the early observations are still common currency within today’s discussion, often marked by an uncompromising division between pessimistic (Apocalyptic) and optimistic (Integrated) intellectuals, who either condemn or embrace emergent technologies.[1] Especially in pessimistic quarters it has become a cliché to quote Baudrillard’s view that society has been reduced to simulation or to stress, in the way Eco did with reference to the USA, the commercialized aspect of the recreations and themed environments that now proliferate around the world. Today the age of simulation has acquired a new twist: it has ‘gone digital’. Its culture is one of copying, sampling, animating, imitating, hybridizing, morphing, re-enacting, re-mixing, and re-membering. Our desire to create realistic fabrications has not weakened, rather it has become stronger since we now possess the technological tools to create an alternative (virtual) reality whose seductive appeal we find irresistible.

Contemporary (popular) culture is certainly influenced by the extensive use of digital tools in domains as diverse as entertainment and news broadcasting, so much so that distinctions across media begin to blur. Interesting re-mediations (to use Bolter and Grusin’s terminology) take place for example between games and cinema – one only needs to consider films such as Tron (Steven Lisberger, 1982), Joysticks (Greydon Clark, 1983), Super Mario Brothers (Annabel Jankel & Rocky Morton, 1993), Toys (Barry Levinson, 1993), Mortal Kombat (Paul W.S. Anderson, 1995), Wing Commander (Chris Roberts, 1999), Lara Croft: Tomb Raider (Simon West, 2001), Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001) and Resident Evil (Paul W.S. Anderson, 2002), to name just a few. These films testify to a digital culture that operates in a ‘convergence mode’: the convergence of filmmaking, animation & game development; of art and technology and popular culture; of art and science.[2] It is not surprising then that different disciplines also converge in trying to provide an answer to some of the most pressing questions humanity has ever faced: what happens to our bodies and our identities in a (post-human) digital age? How do we define truth in the midst of codes and copies? How can we distinguish between the authentic and the synthetic? Cinema, itself an elaborate system for synthetic representation, is contributing to the debate in the way it knows best: by creating stories that speak to our innermost fears and desires. Maybe the contemporary craving for (hyper)realistic representation, which seems to mark our dealings with computer technology in most applications (including the cinematic) is not so much a matter of once more simulating the real – we only do that in order to recognize the way in which reality is perceived – but of learning how to build a complex world which has reality content.[3] More specifically, the status of the realism of a film’s diegetic space and its transformation under the increasing employment of digital imaging has long been a chief subject of debate in cinema and new media studies.[4]

In Future Visions Hayward and Wollen have even suggested that the “development of audiovisual technologies has been driven not so much by a realist project as by an illusionary one”. (1993, 2) Birk Weinberg in his “Beyond Interactive Cinema” (2002) has argued instead that: “The aesthetic history of media can be described on the basis of a drift towards greater realism for improved immersion of the viewer”. Others have advanced the controversial opinion that “today the real has become the new avant-garde”. (Rombes 2005) In this perspective, Rombes argues, it is rather ironic that “the re-emergence of realism in the cinema, thanks to the digital, could be traced directly to a technological form that seems to represent a final break with the real.”(2005) “But,” he asks, “is it possible to talk about the real today without being accused of a sort of retrograde orthodoxy, a naive or unreflective reversion to Bazin?” (Rombes 2005) The answer is yes, since “post-humanist theory… has told us what was always already obvious: that reality itself is an apparatus further deconstructed by cinema. In today’s landscape of self-theorizing media… it is once again safe to speak of representations of the real without putting that word in quotation marks.”(Rombes 2005) Post-humanist theory informs the reading of SimOne (Andrew Niccol, 2002) offered by Sydney Eve Matrix in “‘We’re Okay with Fake’: Cybercinematography and the Spectre of Virtual Actors in S1M0NE” (2006). In what follows below I will refute some of the conclusions drawn by Matrix to propose my reading of S1mOne as a film that demonstrates Hollywood’s ambiguous response to the crucial issues of virtuality and simulation.

Simulation One (S1mOne)

As is often the case, key concepts within academic discourse find expression in popular media – a sort of prêt à porter collection of concepts – which renders them more palatable to the general public. The issue of simulation, recurrent in a plethora of Hollywood movies, is emblematic of such a process and of its mixed results. When S1mOne by Andrew Niccol was released in 2002 critics reacted with lukewarm enthusiasm, a far cry from Niccol’s previously acclaimed achievements as a writer/director (Gattaca, 1997) and writer (The Truman Show, 1998). This was “the case of a pregnant premise being wasted by a script that takes few chances and manages to insult the intelligence of everyone in the audience”. (Berardinelli, 2002)

I share Berardinelli’s criticism, however, I would argue that the film’s shortcomings and inconsistencies are exactly what makes it worthy of critical analysis. They are to be considered in the context of Hollywood’s ambivalent attitude towards the use of new digital technology, a technology, which, while it is happily embraced (not least for the huge economic returns that it provides at the box office), is also represented in ‘apocalyptic’ terms.

The plot tells of Viktor Taransky (Al Pacino), an ‘arty’ director, who gets into trouble when his prima donna, Nicola Anders (Winona Ryder) storms off the set because her trailer is not big enough. Viktor’s career is saved by Hank Aleno (Elias Koteas), a dying and deranged computer engineer who has created a synthetic actor that Viktor can ‘cast’ in his movie without anyone being able to tell the difference. She is the ultimate director’s fantasy, an instrument that Viktor can exploit at will for his creative purposes. In spite of his declared computer illiteracy, he manages to digitally replace Nicola with Simone and the film is a hit. At first Viktor is reluctant to use ‘Simulation One’ (shortened to Simone), but he changes his mind when he realizes that “our ability to manufacture fraud exceeds our ability to detect it”. Viktor’s justification for creating his digital star is based on the recognition that “since we all live in one big lie… why shouldn’t [she] live too?” So, ‘a star is digitized’, and Simone soon becomes a world celebrity. In truth, Viktor’s intention was to reveal it all after the first reviews were in, since he believed that people would immediately spot the deception. However that is not the case: Simone is just another of Hollywood’s many ‘invisible effects’.[5] In the end, inevitably, like Dr. Frankenstein – tellingly, also a Victor – before him, Viktor is eclipsed by his creation. He may have created Simone, but her image is beyond his control.

Much of my interest in this film stems from the fact that it contradicts its own premises: on one side, it seems to take a stand against our digital ‘age of simulation,’ the ‘big lie’ as Viktor puts it in which we all live, on the other, it celebrates it. As Simone herself puts it: “If the performance is genuine, does it really matter if the actor is real?” Niccol seems to suggest that it does matter: in one scene Viktor is moved to tears by the performance of the ‘human’ actress Nicola Anders. Nicola’s breathtaking performance shows the sublime irony inherent in the acting profession: the more ‘authentic’ an actor qua actor. Performance, like the body and its subjectivity which embodies and enacts the performative, might have been extended, challenged and reconfigured by technology and yet, this scene suggests, the ontology of the performance (its aura and humanness) maintains a unique privileged status. Moreover, Viktor’s hubris for creating the perfect actress is in the end punished, thus warning us against the perils of misusing technology to play God and create (artificial) life. As I have argued elsewhere, the fact that Viktor’s Pygmalion-style manipulation of Simone is short-lived demonstrates how “Hollywood’s willingness to experiment with new technologies cannot contemplate the possibility of its own extinction”. (Notaro, 2006, 93) What could have been a witty satire of the star system and of the dangers of cinematographic illusion is blatantly contradicted by S1mOne’s marketing strategy by New Line Cinema. Besides the official S1mOne web site (http://www.s1m0ne.com/) a whole set of ‘fake’ web sites were produced for each of Simone’s movies, for some of her co-stars, for Viktor Taransky and even one for Amalgamated Film (http://www.amalgamatedfilms.com/), the fictional counterpart of New Line Cinema, thus blurring the line between cinematic fabrication and the ‘real’ studios’ need to push the film. This marketing strategy is a further indication, in a film apparently concerned with authenticity and sincerity, of Hollywood’s hypocritical stance on issues of virtuality and simulation. Also, despite Niccol’s initial statements that he wouldn’t reveal whether the character was real or not he later changed his mind, explaining that Simone’s voice and body were augmented by computer with elements of other actresses like Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly, but Roberts was the principal source. The idea, according to Niccol, was to make a hybrid that was “contemporary but not so trendy that she would be quickly dated”. (rottentomatoes.com, “S1m0ne,” 2002) A commodified digital star with a long expiry date! In addition, Niccol commented, “We’re coming to the point where you won’t know if an actor or newscaster is computerized or flesh and blood… What’s more, you won’t care, as long as they impress us or move us, because as Taransky believes, ‘in our phoney world reality is in the performance”. (rottentomatoes.com, “S1m0ne,” 2002) I find it significant that Niccol himself is perfectly willing to employ technologies in a film that apparently deplores them. The reason for such an ambivalence resides in the fact that Niccol is not outside, but rather implicated in, Hollywood’s economy of manufactured celebrity and in the myth of the authentic performance. Although Niccol’s screenplay does indicate, as Matrix argues, that “digital cinema has the potential to shake up, disturb, and disrupt the methods of production in Hollywood,” (2006, 215) such a potential appears contained (and mitigated) within Hollywood’s well ‘rehearsed’ strategy to wrestle with the dilemmas of technological simulations in a fictional realm rather than in reality. In contrast to Matrix’s arguments, I propose that Niccol’s film engages but, crucially, does not disrupt the discourses concerning the impact of digital animation on Hollywood. (2006, 215)

Also worth a mention are the DVD extras which include two featurettes about the film’s production and the real-world potential for virtual actors. What emerges from the DVD extras is the view held by the special effects specialists that virtual actors (vactors) will soon be a reality (no pun intended). We discover that Rachel Roberts in order to ‘become’ Simone had to go through a process of ‘de-humanization’, in other words she had to learn how not to blink for two minutes and to control her bodily mannerism. This is an interesting turn away from what is usually required of an actor (i.e. to humanize the character), but Rachel Roberts was no actress before featuring in S1mOne, she was a model. One might argue that the true reason behind her choice is not because her face was not known in the business (hence the marketing ploy could work), rather she was perfect for the purpose of modeling the ‘look’ of the artificial actor for the ‘next season’ and, above all, willing to lend her body to be shaped into this new ‘thing to come.’ Unfortunately for Roberts, she has not become a movie star like the character she portrays; maybe she remains too human in spite of the CGI tears implanted in her eyes – ironic really if one considers that “in modern day society, being a star does not always depend upon possessing a mortal soul, but instead an aura of sexuality”. (Flanagan, 1999) Sexuality and gender have both been long standing points of interest in the world of stardom, as is visible in movies, television, music, etc. [6] Interestingly, Mary Flanagan argues that digital stars are now rising into celebrity, paralleling the rise of cinema stars in the early twentieth century. Like their cinematic counterparts, the appeal of digital stars such as Lara Croft (2001) depends heavily on their sexuality. I would argue that the difference between Lara and Simone is that for Lara the ‘authentic’ self never existed whereas Simone’s digital persona heavily relies on a ‘real’ one. The real referent, however, does not alter Simone’s status as an apt representative of the insubstantial film star who cannot actually act, a mere construction of studio publicity departments. In this sense the film falls into a tradition of satires about Hollywood (from within Hollywood itself) that stretches back at least to the 1920s. In any case, Lara and Simone have a great deal in common: they inhabit screen worlds and are both produced by the star system, commodities to be consumed by audiences, products to be desired, and ultimately, acquired. The representation of Lara and Simone is essential to understand the issues of (dis)embodiment of computer personalities and the place of gender in these embodiment relationships. There is little doubt that their bodies are nothing but an interesting culmination of numerous western ideals of beauty. Looking at the future, I don’t fully share Flanagan’s optimistic view that one day digital stars won’t be represented as ‘stereotypical female sex objects’.(1999) On this issue, I agree with Sidney Eve Matrix when, inspired by Balsamo’s arguments in Technologies of the Gendered Body (1999), she argues that “Viktor approaches digital cinema not as a technological innovation that can allow him to think outside the box, but as a tool for telling the same [masculinist] stories.” (emphasis mine 2006, 223) [7]

When Viktor, like a novel Pygmalion, creates Simone in his dark director’s room he is re-telling an old story, in that he’s re-enacting the ancient masculine dream of the creation of the ‘ideal’ woman, while realizing the more contemporary aspiration of every (digital) celebrity fan. Dissatisfied with just looking at the conventional stars within the filmic world, we now wish to embrace the very real pleasure of controlling these desired bodies through playing/interacting with them, being in a video game, or by receiving a direct customized service of sorts. This was the case for Ananova, a Web-oriented news service that featured a computer-simulated animation of a woman newscaster, named Ananova, programmed to read newscasts to Web users. Thanks to the morphing technique, Ananova’s face was the result of blending the traits of a ‘real star’ who could not sing, the former Spice Girl Posh – now better known as Victoria Beckam – and of a digital one Lara Croft. [8]


Fig. 1 Ananova (from http://www.mattwardman.com/blog/2007/05/01/double-trouble-posh-spice-and-ananova/)
In this light, it becomes important to trace back that direct line from which the ‘fake’ synthespian Simone is descended in order to substantiate my claim: in Hollywood virtual actors and digital technologies are wholly in the service of a naturalistic illusion and this is in stark contrast to the anti-naturalist tendencies which characterize the (modernist) history of the artificial actor.

Artificial Actor: A Brief History

The idea to dispense with the services of human actors dates back to the avant-gardes of the early twentieth century. Gordon Craig, one of the true giants of modern theatre, in his article “The Actor and the Ǚbermarionette” states: “in the beginning the human body is by nature utterly useless as a material for an art”. (1907, n.p.) [9] Craig also held the controversial conviction that actors should serve as marionettes for the guiding vision of the director, a view that a ‘real’ director Hitchcock for whom actors were cattle and a fictional one and Taransky, the puppet master would gladly share. The list of possible substitutes for the human actor includes, besides Craig’s űbermarionette, Artaud’s puppets, Mejerhold’s bio-mechanical actors, Brjùsov’s springing dolls, Schlemmer’s geometric dancers and the technological fantasies of the Italian Futurists Prampolini and Depero. Inspired by these early examples the French surrealist Hans Bellmer in 1936 built his first ‘doll’ (poupée), using in his painting a technique called morphing.[13]

The reason for dwelling on the early history of the acting profession deprived of its humanity, is to consider – as we shall see later on – contemporary trends within both theatre and cinema as the coming of age of issues first posed a century ago. In particular, I would also argue that some of the most regressive aspects in contemporary virtual representations, such as the gender issues highlighted above find an historical precedent in the more inherently problematic qualities of the avant-garde experiments with their emphasis on the controllable performer and technophiliac tendencies.

Moving to more recent times, the word synthespian, meaning an artificially-created human actor, was coined by LA-based digital effects expert Jeff Kleiser when, together with Diana Walczak they created the industry’s first virtual actor (or vactor) for the 1988 short film Nestor Sextone for President (premiered at SIGGRAPH in the same year). The satirical film featured a synthespian, Nestor Sextone, going for president of the Synthetic Actors Guild, complaining that live actors had been masquerading as synthetics, thus robbing them of jobs (a reference to Max Headroom who was portrayed in a television series by the real-life actor Matt Frewer).[14] A year later, Kleiser and Walczak presented their first female Synthespian, Dozo, in the music video ‘Don’t Touch Me’ (available at http://www.poetv.com/video.php?vid=15102).

Sextone for president
Fig. 2 Sextone for President Written and Directed by Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak © 1988 (from http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0526.html)

The female synthespian Dozo
Fig. 3 The Female synthespian Dozo performing ‘Don’t Touch Me’ Directed by Diana Walczak and Jeff Kleiser © 1989 (from http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0526.html)

1991 was an important year in that it saw the production of the first truly believable computer-generated character in the morphing metal cyborg of James Cameron’s Terminator 2: Judgment Day. Four years later, Toy Story (John Lasseter) was released, the first computer generated film in history populated entirely by digital characters in a world made of bits and bytes. By 1996, the word synthespian was common currency in Hollywood and had made its appearance in the world of literature as well, namely in the novel Idoru by William Gibson. After the release of Jurassic Park (Steven Spielberg, 1993) it was clear for the major studios that CG life forms could be integral, even indispensable, characters in their films. The question was whether the performances by synthespians were ever going to be more convincing than the ones by human actors. Nowadays synthespians are used as background extras and for stunts too dangerous for stuntmen to perform, since fully interactive, lifelike digital humans are still far from coming on the scene. What is certain is that real actors are connected to their audience via emotion (empathy), hence the presence of a digital actor on screen is uncanny, it demands too much ‘suspension of disbelief’. [15] As Kleiser argues in his electronic piece “Synthespian“:“This is much more important than merely making an actor look indistinguishable from a human, and in many ways, much more challenging.” [16]

Let us consider Final Fantasy (Hironobu Sakaguchi, 2001) the first film with an entire cast of hyper-realistic, computer-generated human characters. Similarly to Lara Croft, Aki Ross “is the very model of a modern movie heroine: brunette, lithe, headstrong and confident.” (Hiltzik and Pham) Undoubtedly, “the producers of Final Fantasy were counting on these qualities to make the audience forget that,despite her astonishing resemblance to a living person, everything about her, from her form-fitting spacesuit to the twinkle in her eyes, was created inside a computer”.(Hiltzik and Pham) With a strategy opposite to that of the New Line that marketed the (mostly) human Simone as if she was a digital creation, Columbia Pictures marketed Ross as though she were flesh and blood. In a move that parallels what the fictional Studios Amalgamated Films did for S1mOne, the Columbia Pictures marketing campaign for Final Fantasy included a photo spread for Aki Ross in the men’s magazine Maxim and Sakaguchi, like Taransky, talked about casting Ross in a range of roles in new movies, as though she was a ‘live’ actress. (Hiltzik and Pham) Two questions are worth raising at this point: if it is true that digital techniques are making some of the most expensive aspects of filmmaking – sets, location shooting, extras, stuntmen – unnecessary and thus cutting costs, on the other hand, as Kleiser points out in his electronic article Synthespianism, “there exists a trade-off between what level of realism is possible versus how much computing time can be spent on each frame”. Final Fantasy required an extraordinary amount of money to make and the results did not pay off at the box office. However, it had the merit to reanimate, as Kleiser aptly reminds us, a 30-year debate over the role of synthespians, an idea that has intrigued programmers since Westworld (Michael Crichton, 1973). With the latest generation of digital tools at their disposal (for example the motion capture technique that allows actual movement to be recorded and applied to digital characters) filmmakers are offered a range of possibilities as never before, possibilities which are having a huge impact on the whole industry. Already in November 1997 Wired magazine featured a special report on the future of Hollywood filmmaking titled “Hollywood 2.0.”. The traditional film industry based on studios, theaters and stars was depicted as evolving, under the impact of new technologies, into something completely different, “Hollywood 1.0’ was soon to become ‘Hollywood 2.0”, an entertainment world where: “computer-generated actors are competing with flesh and blood. Studios are not studios: feature films are created on desktop computers for less than US$1,000” (Daly, 1997, 1). Two years earlier another report regarded “The New Hollywood: Silicon Stars” (Parisi, 1995). In typical Wired techno-enthusiastic style readers were presented with the following ‘tantalizing’ prospects.

Digital artistry will allow actors to bioengineer themselves, or be fully bioengineered, to perfection. A performer with no aptitude for dance, for example, can have all the right moves programmed in. Stars will be constructed from the choicest body parts, in the same way dozens of animators work in concert to create a Disney character (Parisi, 1995)

Under the heading ‘Digital Frankenstein’, the article went on to present Scott Billups “the first person – in Hollywood, at least – to reach deep into the heart of his bit-circuited incubator and pull out something imbued with a spark of electronic life.” Billups is “a special-effects meister with an attitude, complaining that ‘carbon-based’ actors are glamorous ‘only until you’ve had to work with them.” He is presented as a bit of a rogue, “The first postmodern effects cowboy,” talking about a filmmaking “shift from the organic bias to the inorganic,” skeptical of commonly held beliefs – for him “a set is little more than a synthetic representation of an actual or imagined environment rendered in organic materials.” The report concluded by hinting at some of the implications of digitalization for the acting profession. Current Screen Actors Guild rules prohibit the reuse of actors’ images if it would substitute for hiring the actor, however, it was argued, “It’s reasonable to speculate that the studios will negotiate for ownership of digital rights, either during an actor’s lifetime or posthumously”. (Parisi, 1995) Since 1995 when Wired’s report was published, the most disquieting of visions, the eclipse of the human actor, has not come true and it will probably be a bit longer than the four years some programmers predict for a credible synthespian to compete with a human actor. Digital rendering is wide spread, as nearly all contemporary movies are edited to some extent by computers. Interestingly though, after years of watching movie after movie often oblivious to the seamless combination of live action and computer generated special effects we are now presented with a string of comic book movies, Sky Captain (Kerry Conran, 2004) and Sin City (Frank Miller, 2005) among others, which are a continuous visual reminder, for the spectator, of the level of artistry reached by CGI. [19]

While the time spent by human actors in front of the camera has decreased, that spent ‘inside’ a computer, in post-production, has increased dramatically. Actors might get a bit more ‘cartoon-like’, as Wired predicted, but this does not seem to hinder their (very human) acting skills (as Micky Rourke’s excellent performance as Marv in Sin City shows). The day when an artificial actor will be as convincing as a human actor impersonating a cartoon character is still far off, in the meantime though we can try and imagine how such an artificial actor might perform in the future.

The Shape of Things to Come

Synthespians (or vactors) working in movies are only one of the possible applications for digital characters whose ‘field of action’ has expanded rapidly from video games, to simulation and training, manufacturing, animated web pages, etc. Some of the most interesting concepts for willing avatars and virtual film stars are among those developed at MIRALab in Geneva. For several years this research center has worked on various ‘Humanoid’ projects whose aim is “to provide games designers, multimedia designers and film producers with the technology for creating simulations of realistic interacting humans.” (http://www.miralab.unige.ch/) The founder and director of MIRALab, Nadia Magnenat-Thalmann, makes no mystery of her desire to take virtual humans to a new level. “I’m not so much interested to see pictures, which you watch passively,” she says. “My ultimate goal is to be able to live in the virtual worlds, and to meet virtual humans that are collaborators.” (Tyler, 2000)

Thalmann is not alone. Computer game developers have begun experimenting with artificial intelligence (AI), endowing game characters with the capacity to learn and interact with their environment and the game player. The applications for both the cinema and the theatre are tantalizing. The above mentioned movie director Scott Billups is also keen to bring synthespians to a new level. For the Rival comic-book spinoff Eye of the Storm, he has built Synthia, one of several vactors that, thanks to software written by Billups and his partner Mark Lambert, “will have the ability to be driven by synthetic protocol, with synthetic muscle groups.” As Billups puts it: “You just type a command. There’s no puppeting, nothing. They come up with their own scenario.” (Parisi, 1996) Billups is also following the experiments, in appropriately prosaic speech, carried out by Catherine Pelachaud and Scott Prevost at the University of Pennsylvania and designed to construct 3-D virtual agents that can execute simple commands online. Their system enables synthetics to associate appropriate speech and corresponding facial and body expressions with the task they’ve been assigned. These are all steps towards the creation of a ‘smart’ synthetic star, one that responds independently to stimuli and has its own digital consciousness, a potentially less ‘controllable’ performer than the one envisaged by the modernist avant-gardes. Words of caution, however, are not uncommon, even from insiders such as the digital effects specialist Jeff Kleiser. In his electronic article “Synthespians” he points out that: “the animator of the future will need to be a talented actor if he or she intends to create a dramatic performance in a synthetic actor. I don’t believe that performances that include this level of dramatic impact can be routinized to the level that a programmer could use for an automated animation system”. [21]

In the field of theatre, experiments with digital actors (not necessarily anthropomorphic) have also been under way. Particularly interesting is the one carried out by Claudio Pinhanez at the MIT Media Laboratory called It/I: An Interactive Theatre Play (1997). It/I, the first play ever produced involving a character reactively controlled by a computer, is a two-character theater play where the human character I is taunted and played by an autonomous computer-graphics character It. As we learn from the project’s description: “The computer playing It monitors the scene with video cameras and reacts to I’s actions by displaying real time computer graphics objects and synthesizing sound. After the play, the public is invited to go up on the stage and interact with It.” (Pinhanez, 2000) [22]

Also worth mentioning is the Virtual Theatre project directed by Barbara-Hayes-Roth at Stanford University and whose aim is to build “computer characters that can perform direct improvisation… Directors (who may be human users or others computer agents) give the characters abstract instructions. The characters work together to improvise an engaging course of behavior within the constrains of the directions”. [23]

What is worth noting about the above pioneering projects is that in the attempt to imitate human skills what has been lost is the human body. In the case of It/I the actor is ‘embodied’ so to say, in a complex set of tools on the stage (images, lights, sounds), in the second the virtual context is uniquely text based. The conceptual links between such contemporary experimentations and the ones carried out by Craig, Schlemmer, Depero or Prampolini in the early years of the twentieth century are all too clear. Their rejection of the actor-figure typical of the naturalistic, bourgeois theatre of the time in favor of new, allusive and metaphysical forms finds its contemporary counterpart in the post-human, mixed realities of cyber-performance. This is a world where the human body has no physical substance, it has become an ‘avatar’, the Sanskrit word that means ‘the descent of God’ or simply ‘reincarnation’. The avatar is just one of the latest reincarnations of the human actor, like in the case of the Colliders: four women who came online together in 2001 to form Avatar Body Collision, a collaborative performance troupe who devise and rehearse using free chat software and live (mostly) in London, Helsinki, Aotearoa/New Zealand and cyberspace.[24]

The issue which arises at this point is how to reconcile the hyper-realistic trends (i.e. the realization of the anthropomorphic ‘smart’ synthespian) with the (not necessarily human-like) figure of the cyber-performer. The answer is that the two are irreconcilable, what one can envisage is that to these two types of virtual actor will probably correspond two different types of cinema (and theatre). On the one hand, we will be presented with artificial actors as realistic as real humans, on the other with actors whose bodies have lost every anthropomorphic characteristic. The final realization, it seems, of the anti-naturalistic tendencies emerged in the early part of the twentieth century. One cannot help wondering whether the current push towards a more sophisticated reality effect, as far as the representation of the human body is concerned, will continue until the frame that demarcates a distance between reality and representation is obliterated. The most likely answer is yes. There will always be a type of cinema which feeds us exactly the illusion realities we want. However, it is not difficult to foresee a new cinematic experience emerging from the changed technical standard, a cinematic experience in which interactivity has dramatic effects on traditional Hollywood-type narrative models of storytelling. Also, given our old habit of thinking of cinema (and theatre) as the collaborative enterprise of a human triad – author, director, actor – it is fascinating to speculate on what will happen if/when any one of the triad would not be human anymore, or on what would be the impact on the same idea of authorship. [26]

In conclusion, looking back across history, we have argued that the contemporary interest in the perfect human-like synthespian should be considered in the context of humanity’s fascination with the idea of artificial life created from inanimate materials. Our digital age demonstrates such a fascination with the proliferation of stories and artifacts which express the mingled fear and desire for autonomous machines (often anthropomorphic = cyborgs) which can either make humans entirely redundant or, in the more optimistic scenario, provide a solution to the limitations of our imperfect bodies. Western subjectivity seems to be undergoing a period of transition that, according to Matthew Causey, can be constructed as a re-birth of tragedy. In his words:

Like Nietzsche’s model of the birth of tragedy rooted in the movement from the divine body to the body inscribed and reduced under the rule of societal law which finds representation in the sacrificial rituals of dismemberment (sparagmos), the ontological shift from organic to technological, televisual, and digital beingness is tragic. The tragic, in this case, finds representation and is projected in the fantasies of the fragmented and digital, medical and postcolonial body as articulated in the art of Stelarc, Orlan, and Gómez-Peña. (1999, 393)

I find Causey’s comments relevant, however, I would amend his conclusions to point out that like in Greek drama where it was not uncommon to mix the tragic with the comic (the sublime with the grotesque) a more accurate assessment of contemporary mediatized representations of the body should take such an aspect into account. The recurrence of Surrealist image motifs – mannequin, doll, body fragment, automaton – in both the visual and performing arts signals the complex and long-standing relationship between embodiment and technology. The issues raised by robotics, machine intelligence, gene technology and information processing vitally concentrate around the question of what is to be human: as (popular) cultural representations they picture irrational fears and utopian hopes; spectacular achievement as well as disturbing uncertainties. These seem to me to be the far more pressing issues raised by emergent technologies, rather than the commonly rehearsed arguments about technophobia and technophilia. By focusing on the figure of the artificial actor in its past, present and possible future reincarnations this essay has offered a contribution to the hotly debated question of the increasing symbiotic relationship between human beings and digital technologies.


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[1] Apocalyptic and Integrated is the title of a study by Eco, published in 1964 (English translation, Apocalypse Postponed, 1994). Eco was referring to the polarized manner in which the intellectuals of the time viewed mass culture. I find the dichotomy which characterizes contemporary debates about the impact of emergent technologies on the human body and society at large similarly unhelpful. We need to move beyond the technophilia/technophobia divide and advocate a more civic involvement in the development and use of technology. On this point see Feenberg (2002).

[2] The convergence of cinema and video games is attracting growing critical attention, thus demonstrating how much film aesthetics and game theory can learn from each other. See: Krzywinska & King (2002); Jenkins, (2006); Simons (2007); Matteo Bittanti (2008). Also worth mentioning is Machinima which, as defined in the Academy of Machinima Arts & Sciences web site “is the convergence of filmmaking, animation and game development.” http://www.machinima.org/machinima-faq.html

[3] Or “learning to live within simulations,” as Baudrillard would have it (1990).

[4] See Prince (1996: 27-37) and Manovich (1997).

[5] As Manovich aptly reminds us “An invisible effect is the standard industry term… in 1997 the film Contact directed by Robert Zemeckis was nominated for 1997 VFX HQ Awards in the following categories: Best Visual Effects, Best Sequence (The Ride), Best Shot (Powers of Ten), Best Invisible Effects (Dish Restoration) and Best Compositing” (Manovich 2006)

[6] The literature on the Hollywood star system and its significance is extensive, of particular note is the work of Dyer (1979); Gledhill (1991), Gamson (1994); Ndalianis & Henry (2002); Redmond & Holmes (2007).

[7] A discussion of the uses of women’s bodies as a representational ground within new media technologies is beyond the scope of this article, suffice it to say though that current examples display a worrying tendency towards telling the same stories.

[8] The Ananova website (http://www.ananova.com/), is still operational but the animated Ananova character has been unavailable since 2004. Interestingly, the service is well known for its unusual news stories and celebrity gossip. See how Ananova’s debut was announced by the BBC in April 2000 at http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/718327.stm (accessed 2/3/2006).

[9] Already in 1810, Heinrich von Kleist in his “On the Marionette Theater” had argued that “where grace is concerned, it is impossible for man to come anywhere near a Puppet.” Full text available at http://southerncrossreview.org/9/kleist.htm (accessed 2/2/2008). Craig’s quote is included in John Bell’s electronic piece “Death and Performing Objects” http://www.nyu.edu/classes/bkg/death.txt (accessed 2/2/2007). See also by Craig’s On the Art of the Theatre (1911).

[10] Ron Miller in his “ALFRED HITCHCOCK: Did He Really Treat Actors Like Cattle?” recalls how in 1960 he asked Hitchcock if he really once said actors were like cattle. The reply was: “No… what I said was that actors should be treated like cattle.” http://www.thecolumnists.com/miller18.html (accessed 2/2/2007).

[11] For an introduction to Mejerhold’s main stage productions and to view some amazing video clips see: http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/~mdenner/Drama/plays/constructivist/constructivist.html (accessed 2/6/2007).

[12] For some fascinating pictures and video fragments of Schlemmer’s mechanical dancers see: http://www.digischool.nl/ckv2/moderne/moderne/schlemmer/Mechanische%20balletten.htm (accessed 2/6/2007).

[13] Almost prophetically, Bellmer used the term ‘virtual’ with reference to his painting and graphic work. Morphing is now an established artistic practice and a standard special effect in many Hollywood productions. Such a technique has implications that are both surreal (the dream of the body assembled from different parts) and fetishistic (the transfer of desire on inanimate beings). For a brief insight into Bellmer’s work see: http://www.sauer-thompson.com/junkforcode/archives/001154.html (accessed 2/6/2007). For an exploration of what digital morphing means, both as a cultural practice of our times and within the broader history of images of human transformation see Sobchack (2000).

[14] See The Max Headroom Chronicles, “a web site intended to be the most complete word on the history, milieu and supporting crew of the ’80s icon, cyberpunk legend and advertising avatar.” http://www.maxheadroom.com/mh_home.html (accessed 5/7/2007) and the Max Headroom’s profile at the Museum of Broadcast Communications http://www.museum.tv/archives/etv/M/htmlM/maxheadroom/maxheadroom.htm (accessed 5/7/07).

[15] In 1970 Japanese roboticist Masahiro Mori coined the term ‘uncanny valley’. He noticed that if his robots came too close to resemble human beings people found them creepy, whereas when robots only slightly resembled humans people found them cute. As Lisa Bode observes, the uncanny valley has “come to be seen as a problem for the development of photo-real digital actors: either one that must be worked through and overcome, or one that points to the very impossibility or futility of the task” (2006, 176)

[16] The site is archived at: http://web.archive.org/web/20071015081153/http://kwcc.com/works/sp/lead.html
The challenge that Kleiser refers to has been taken up more recently, and successfully, by Image Metrix, a provider of facial animation solutions for the entertainment industry and the University of Southern California Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT). The partnership has produced an animated woman using a ground-breaking modelling technique. ICT’s facial scanning system created a computer-generated replica of actress Emily O’Brien’s face at high-definition resolution, while Image Metrics brought the CG character to life by capturing, tracking and animating the actress’ performance. ‘Emily’ has just been presented at SIGGRAPH (Aug. 12-14 2008) in Los Angeles. More information at http://www.image-metrics.com/

[17] Aki Ross became the first computer-generated character entry in Maxim’s Hot 100. Not surprisingly she appeared wearing a sexy bikini. See: http://www.killermovies.com/f/finalfantasythespiritswithin/articles/1370.html (accessed 2/7/2007).

[18] One of the most important implications of digitalization for the acting profession came to light when Andy Serkis – whose talent shaped the computer-generated performance of Gollum in Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (Peter Jackson, 2002), failed to receive the Oscar nomination for best supporting actor. As Ivan Askwith aptly puts it, as digital effects become increasingly prevalent: “Does the performance belong to the actor who brings a character to life, or to the production team that gives the character its form? ” (18/2/2003).

[19] In the case of these movies it looks as if naturalism was not the exclusive end product of digital animation, rather its function might be exactly the opposite: to underscore the unreality of spaces and movements.

[20] Today everyone can create a ‘V-human’ from scratch, at least according to Peter Plantec, author of Virtual Humans (New York: AMACOM, 2003) a manual that provides start-to-finish instructions for designing a synthetic person and a CD-ROM containing the software to make it ‘real’. For more info see Peter Plantec, “How to Build a Virtual Human, ” KurzweilAI.net October 20, (2003) http://www.kurzweilai.net/meme/frame.html?main=/articles/art0599.html (accessed 3/7/2007). Also worth noting is the recent proliferation of chat-bot characters, one of the latest being ‘Ultra Hal’, digital secretary and assistant, created by Robert Medeksza and winner of the Loebner Prize in Artificial Intelligence for 2007 http://www.loebner.net/Prizef/loebner-prize.html (accessed 2/2/2008). Ultra Hal can be accessed at http://www.zabaware.com/ (accessed 2/2/2008).

[21] The importance of acting skills for animators has been most strongly recognized by Ed Hooks. He is the author of Acting for Animators (2003). I am grateful to my colleague Tracey McConnell Wood for drawing my attention to Hooks’ work.

[22] For a detailed description of this project see Pinhanez & Bobick (2002, 536-548).

[23]The Virtual Theater project http://www-ksl.stanford.edu/projects/cait/ (accessed 2/3/2007).

[24] The Colliders http://www.avatarbodycollision.org/index2.html (accessed 2/3/2007).

[25] Already in the 1970s, Metz wonders whether in the future non-narrative films may become more numerous; if this happens, he suggests, cinema will no longer need to manufacture its reality effect (1980). For an overview of cinematic forms incorporating new electronic media see Shaw & Weibel (2003).

[26] Janet Murray was among the first to pose such questions in her seminal work Hamlet on the Holodeck: The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (1997). For a discussion of the impact of digital technology with particular reference to questions of authorship see my “Technology in search of an artist: questions of auteurism/authorship and the contemporary cinematic experience” (2006, 86-97).

Author Bio

Dr Anna Notaro is Programme Leader and Lecturer in Contemporary Media Theory at Dundee University (UK). Her publications
include numerous articles in the field of urban/visual culture, the blogosphere, issues of authorship and contemporary cinematic practices and the Electronic Book City Sites: Chicago and New York, 1870s to1930s, (A. Notaro et al eds. available at
Contact Email: A.Z.Notaro@dundee.ac.uk
Website: http://www.notarofam.com/annawork


  1. Matt Wardman says:


    I picked the article up through the link to my site (thanks for linking). You’ve identified a Ananova as being a result of a blending process.

    “Ananova’s face was the result of blending the traits of a ‘real star’ who could not sing, the former Spice Girl Posh – now better known as Victoria Beckam – and of a digital one Lara Croft.”

    The Ananova website itself suggests that that was more of a narrative read in later.

    “Her designers spent hours poring through hundreds of magazine pictures of faces, both famous and unknown, looking for inspiration.

    From the magazine pictures we picked out the most striking features and faces to use as a starting point. When Ananova was first revealed to the world, the media described her as a cross between Kylie Minogue, Posh Spice and Carol Vorderman but in reality she was not based on any one person.”

    Thanks for the link back, and I enjoyed your essay.

    Matt Wardman