Friday, February 07, 2014

Why the Decision to Digitally Recreate Philip Seymour Hoffman for the Final Hunger Games Film is Understandable, But Still Unsettling

In addition to the many heartfelt tributes that have appeared in the wake of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman's untimely death, not to mention the frankly unsettling way in which the news media has picked over the circumstances surrounding his death, one of the more callous questions that has been asked over the last few days, admittedly by people who should probably look up the meaning of the word "tact," has been, "What about the Hunger Games sequels? Won't someone please think of the Hunger Games sequels!"

Hoffman had appeared as the Head Gamemaker Plutarch Heavensbee in The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and was close to finishing his work on the final film, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2, when he passed away last week from an apparent overdose, leaving some doubt over how the filmmakers would work around the scenes that he had left. An early account suggested that most of the scenes could be rewritten, or that they would use body doubles to give a sense of Hoffman's presence without requiring him to be seen too clearly. It was also suggested that they might try to recreate Hoffman digitally, a process that has been used on before on the likes of Gladiator and The Sopranos, and is in no way horrifying, either in concept or practice.

Nancy Marchand doesn't have a problem with it. I think.
It appears to have been confirmed that this method will be employed in Mockingjay Part 2, if only for a scene or two. In what may be the most redundant sentence you'll read all week, Rob Legato, the effects supervisor for the film, said, "I won't say you could generate a Philip Seymour Hoffman with all the acting ability, but you could certainly replicate him for a shot or two." So his work may continue on the film, even though he'll basically be Gollum at that point.

Now, it's easy to see why the studio would go for this route from a financial standpoint. They've got a wildly successful franchise on their hands and they can't run the risk of shutting down production to figure out the best way to work around the sudden, shocking loss of a colleague. Terrible as it is, they have to keep working, and this seems like the easiest way to keep things moving without having to frantically rewrite the script, possibly delaying the release date of the film, or at the very least throwing the entire production off by several weeks, which could impact the quality of the final product further down the line. It also wouldn't make much financial sense to recast Hoffman's role at this point because he had already shot all his scenes in Mockingjay Part 1, and so little work remained to be done for Part 2 that it would be incredibly weird and costly to replace him. There also isn't an easy, textual way of explaining why he suddenly looks so different, as there was in films that lost actors but had more elastic and fantastical realities, like The Matrix Revolutions or The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus, which allowed them to explain why characters were played by different actors.

It also makes some sense from a storytelling point of view; Heavensbee is a pretty major character in the Mockingjay novel, and it would be difficult to write around his absence. That's not to say that it would be completely impossible, though. It might be feasible to have another character take on some of the heavy lifting for the scenes that remained to be shot, or for some elements of the plot to be shifted around. However, Mockingjay is such a lumpy, uneven book that throwing more complications into it would probably have hurt the story, rather than helped it, and you also bump up against the sheer enormity of the production and the problems of redirecting such a huge endeavour. It's much easier to say that you can rewrite a story than it is to actually handle the logistics of reorganising a production that is already in progress.

So I understand why they might choose to "recreate" Hoffman as the least disruptive option, but even if they only do it for a few shots in the final film, it still strikes me as incredibly creepy and unnerving, not just because, as good as CGI is these days, it'll probably look unnatural, but also because you enter into a weird metaphysical area when you start manipulating the images of the recently deceased for profit. It's ghoulish, in the same way that people filming a body being removed from an apartment is, but even more so because the people doing it knew the person in question. Whatever their intentions, it's still immensely disturbing, and only a few steps removed from using Hoffman's body to do the scenes Weekend at Bernie's style. It falls firmly into the realm of just because you can do something, doesn't mean that you should.

I mean, there are worse things that they could do from a technical standpoint. They could just hire Jesse Plemons and slap some middle-age makeup on him. They could bring Tom Cruise in and get him to wear a Philip Seymour Hoffman mask (which admittedly worked pretty well the last time they did it). They could even hire Barry from EastEnders and pop a blonde wig on him. All of these things would look a lot worse than using technology to insert Hoffman into scenes that he had yet to shoot, but they arguably be more respectful.  

Okay, maybe that last one wouldn't have been quite so dignified.

Note: An earlier version of this article said that the decision to use digitally recreate Hoffman had been confirmed, when it is merely very strongly implied at this point. The article has been edited to reflect this.