Disney, please don’t turn Carrie Fisher into a full-fledged CGI character in “Star Wars: Episode IX”

Gary the dog is off limits too.
Gary the dog is off limits too.
Image: Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
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Maybe she’d want to be turned into a ghastly computer-generated figure—maybe she’d find the dark humor in it. But Disney, if you’re listening: Find another way to honor Carrie Fisher in the last Star Wars film.

The loss of Fisher last week has reverberated in ways perhaps only Jedi can understand. The beloved actress, best known for portraying Princess Leia in the original Star Wars trilogy, was only 60. In the last few days, we’ve been reminded of her countless other talents and passions: genius script doctor, memoirist, comedian, and pioneering mental health advocate.

Disney’s Lucasfilm now has the unfortunate responsibility of figuring out how to proceed with its new Star Wars universe without Fisher. At the time of her death, Fisher had already completed filming on the next installment, Star Wars: Episode VIII, but had yet to begin shooting the next chapter, Episode IX, due out in 2019.

A Star Wars “braintrust” including Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy and Episode IX director Colin Trevorrow will meet next week to discuss what will become of Fisher’s Princess Leia, according to the Hollywood Reporter. None of the options sound ideal:

  • Re-write the script, taking Leia out entirely
  • Re-cast Leia with a different actress
  • Explain Leia’s absence in the opening crawl
  • Have Leia appear only briefly, using CGI
  • Turn Leia into a full-fledged CGI character, like what Rogue One did with the late actor Peter Cushing

Re-casting Leia should immediately be out of the question. (There is, however, something of a precedent: the Harry Potter films cast a new Dumbledore after actor Richard Harris’s death in 2002. Fans were initially skeptical of his replacement, Michael Gambon, but eventually grew to admire the performance. Still, the Harry Potter films had a lot more ground to cover—they had only filmed the first two installments when Harris died—so there was no other option.)

Turning Leia into a computer-generated character might be the more likely option. “Rogue One is the road map,” a source told the Hollywood Reporter. That would mean having another actress act as Leia on set, and then digitally graft Fisher’s likeness onto the person’s body.

To do that, Lucasfilm would need the permission of Fisher’s estate, which might be possible—knowing Fisher’s sense of humor, she might have even gotten a kick out of the idea. But Cushing’s likeness in Rogue One was an unsettling, distracting mess. It very clearly wasn’t Cushing—it was a ghost of him, and a digitized one to boot.

Even if they could absolutely nail the technology to digitally recreate Leia, it still wouldn’t be a good idea. Cushing died 23 years ago, and his Star Wars character, Grand Moff Tarkin, wasn’t nearly as important or iconic as Princess Leia. If you’re going to reanimate a character of Leia’s stature, you better make sure it works.

One way I’d feel better about the idea is if Fisher’s daughter, actress Billie Lourd (who already has a small role in the new Star Wars trilogy), acted out her mother’s role in set, serving as the stand-in. That way, at least, it’d be as if she were channeling her mother through her performance, getting closer to Fisher’s essence in a way that another actress or computer couldn’t. Even still, the end result could be wonky and potentially alarming for moviegoers.

Faced with this problem following Furious 7 star Paul Walker’s death mid-filming in 2013, the producers elected to use Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, as stand-ins for Paul during filming, and then digitally recreated the late actor’s face onto their bodies. It worked fairly well because it was used sparingly toward the end of the film, but one could still tell the difference between real Walker and computer Walker. (A similar process was used in The Social Network to graft actor Armie Hammer’s face onto Josh Pence’s body in order to give the illusion that Hammer was simultaneously portraying a pair of twins.)

No matter what Disney, Trevorrow, and Fisher’s family decide, the result will be imperfect, and some subset of fans will complain. No one should envy the call they must now make. But artificially rendering a new Carrie Fisher should be the ultimate last resort unless it can be done in a way that both works cinematically and also celebrates what the actress meant to her fans. Doing both things successfully seems unlikely.

Even as technology improves to the point where humans and CGI creations are visually indistinguishable, something will still be missing. A computer character could never capture the spirit of a person who exuded life as completely and unabashedly as Carrie Fisher. That will forever be something the tech can’t touch.