Thanks to the creation of a hologram clone, opera legend Maria Callas, dead since 1977, appeared onstage at Lincoln Center last week. This is the continuation of a project that previously resurrected such departed stars as Tupac Shakur and Michael Jackson. Roy Orbison, who died in 1988, appeared after Callas. I wonder if he sang, “Pretty Hologram”?
I see where this is going, don’t you? We’re heading straight to “Looker,” the science fiction film directed and written by the late Michael Crichton (“Jurassic Park,”“Westworld,” Disclosure,” “ER,”—How I miss him!). In that prescient 1981 movie, an evil corporation transferred the images of living models to a computer program that could use then make the new CGI versions to do and say anything, and do so more effectively and attractively than the living models themselves, in television ads and even in live appearances via hologram. Then the company had the models killed.
In the New York Times review of singing Zombie Callas, the little matter of ethics never was mentioned. Times critic Anthony Tomassini was not very critical, writing in part,
…[T]here is an amazing video of [Callas] in Act II of Puccini’s “Tosca” in 1964. But no full operas by one of the greatest singing actresses in history; this hologram performance can seem to fill in a bit of that gap. The operatic voice, and the art form itself, can feel so fragile. What better way to represent that fragility — while also reviving it, in a kind of séance — than a hologram?…In introductory comments, [the director] said that the project has tried to present Callas with “restraint, subtlety and delicacy.” The notion of a singing hologram might seem incompatible with such a goal. Yet moments during Sunday’s preview were surprisingly affecting…The problem, as it always has been in opera fandom, will be if this specter from the past prevents a full appreciation of the vitality of opera and singing today.
That’s the problem, is it? No, the problem is the same ethical problem I had with regenerating the deceased actor Peter Cushing in “Rogue One”:
This is, ultimately, a simple Golden Rule exercise. Would you, without your consent, want a computer-generated clone bearing your name being used in mass entertainment, with no limits on what it might be made to say or do—forever?
This technology or ones like it will soon be able, as in “Looker,” to make reconstructed images of past performers do and say whatever their masters choose, whether or not it enhances or undermines the image and reputation they constructed in life, and whether or not the late individual would have consented had he or she been given the chance. Living artists should take steps immediately to protect themselves from post mortem exploitation, or, if they don’t care, at least make certain that their heirs and offspring profit. When Carrie Fisher died and the prospect of Zombie Carrie continuing on in the “Star Wars” franchise loomed, Yahoo reported that other film stars were rapidly taking measures to protect their images:
“Celebrities are increasingly involved in making plans to protect their intellectual property rights,” said Mark Roesler, an attorney and chairman of CMG Worldwide, an agency representing celebrity estates. “They understand that their legacy will continue beyond their lifetime.”
Roesler said at least 25 of his clients are engaged in actively negotiating the use of their or their loved ones’ computer-generated images in movies, television or commercials. Employment contracts govern how they can be used in a particular film or commercial, while a performer’s will can address broader issues.
Some actors or heirs worry that overexposure will tarnish a celebrity’s image, Roesler said. Some explicitly rule out posthumous depictions involving sex or violence, while others focus on drugs or alcohol.
“We have seen people address marijuana,” he said. “We’ve seen liquor addressed.”
California law already gives heirs control over actors’ posthumous profits by requiring their permission for any of use of their likeness. As technology has improved, many living actors there are more focused on steering their legacy with stipulations on how their images are used – or by forbidding their use.
With Callas’s enslavement, it seems clear that more than film performers need to take action, if they don’t want to be remembered by future generations for doing a strip tease in Radio City Music Hall. I think a law protecting performers like Callas, who didn’t see this coming (she died before “Looker”), would be fair and prudent. I would also endorse laws protecting all dead public figures from undignified future cyber- or hologram manipulation absent their consent.
Should living heirs be able to declare that, for the right price, their famous ancestor can become a digital TV huckster for condoms? Should Callas’s family be allowed to give permission for her hologram avatar to sing “Carmen” naked and in Klingon at the Hollywood Bowl?
Let’s have another poll!