Technology returns actors to the screen
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Technology returns actors to the screen

Q.  Audrey Hepburn was digitally recreated for a chocolate commercial in 2013, as was Bruce Lee in a Chinese-language ad for a whiskey brand.  Now U.S. actor James Dean may star in a movie long after his death, writes “New Scientist” magazine.  How is this possible?

A.  “As computer-generated imagery (CGI) has become cheaper and more sophisticated, the film industry can now convincingly recreate people on screen — even actors who have been dead for decades,” the magazine’s Donna Lu says.  Just recently, it was announced that Dean, who died in 1955, will be recreated in a Vietnam War film, using CGI based on old footage and photographs with another actor voicing him.  But, according to Tim Webber at U.K.’s visual effect firm Framestore, there’s always a danger, when you’re doing anything human or humanoid, especially when working with the eyes or mouth, that the result is less than perfect.  Viewers may experience the “uncanny valley,” becoming uneasy as their brain knows something’s wrong.

This new technology, of course, has sparked sharp controversy:  Supporters say it’s a way to keep an actor’s image relevant for younger generations and to allow his estate to profit when he’s dead.  Critics counter that it exploits the dead celebrity for profit-making.  “Legally, a person’s rights to control the commercial use of their name and images beyond their death differ between and even within countries.”  Robin Williams, for example, filed a deed before his death protecting his likeness from being recreated in CGI until 2039.

Says Webber:  Expect to see more digital humans on screen. “It’s happening because it can happen.” 

Q.  Word-lovers, are you up on the meaning of these four tosspots: “wantwit,” “know-it-all,” “make-peace” and “canker-blossom”?

A.  “Tosspots” are words made up by a verb and a noun, where the noun is the object of the verb, as, for example, a pickpocket picks pockets, says Anu Garg on his “A.Word.A.Day” website.  “Repairman,” though, is not a tosspot, since a repairman does not repair a man.  A “wantwit,” from Old English “wit” (mind), is a fool, or one lacking good sense, and was first used is 1449.  Displaying a different sort of mind-set is a “know-it-all,” one acting   as if he/she knows everything, dismissing others’ ideas.  Better to be a “makepeace,” a peacemaker, or one who reconciles persons at odds with each other.

Finally, credit William Shakespeare for coining “canker-blossom” in 1600 in “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.” Hermia says to Helena: “O me! You juggler! You canker-blossom!/ You thief of love! What, have you come by night/ And stol’n my love’s heart from him?”  A “canker-blossom,” then, is one who destroys good things.

Q.  As part of a study on how stress can make hair go gray, mice were injected with a compound related to capsaicin, the ingredient that makes chili peppers hot.  Within five days, their hair had turned white.  What was likely the cause of the color loss?

A.  The body’s fight-or-flight mechanism, researchers say.  Hair gets its color from melanocyte stem cells in hair follicles that are converted into pigment-producing cells, reports Erin Garcia de Jesus in “Science News” magazine.  But since the body cannot replenish stem cells, as they are depleted, color vanishes.

As the mice experienced sensory stress due to the capsaicin-related compound, the stress triggered the mice’s sympathetic nervous system to release the neurotransmitter norepinephrine, which in turn overactivated the stem cells, “setting off a flurry of conversion into pigment-producing cells.  And that rapidly uses up the stem cell supply.”  Result: gray hair.

  Could the stress-related graying process be the same in aging?  Stay tuned.

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