Synthespian is the term coined in 1989 by filmmakers Diana Walczak and Jeff Kleiser to describe that Holy Grail of computer animation--the digitally-animated performer that looks human.

Walczak and Kleiser created the world's first "synthetic actor," Nestor Sextone, in their 1988 short Nestor Sextone for President. In that film, Sextone was running for president of the "Synthetic Actors Guild," and his platform attacked such obviously-false synthetic actors (sic) as Max Headroom, a popular real-life television character played by the very human Matt Frewer in state-of the-art makeup.

Since that break-through film, hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent researching and developing "virtual" actors, with varying degrees of success. Roger Rabbit, the dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the adorable stars of Toy Story--all of these animated characters have some of the qualities people go to movies to see. They have personalities, goals, and conflicts. And they are therefore interesting. But they are not people.

Some would argue that Stuart Little, the eponymous star of Sony Pictures Entertainment's 1999 film about a family that adopts a mouse, is the epitome of the art of animated realistic characterization. Strictly speaking, however, Stewart--though he looked real, and caused real emotions on the part of the audience--was a mouse, not a human being. He was a computer-animated animal too, not that different from Mickey or Donald or Goofy or Dumbo or Jar Jar Binks for that matter. None of these characters could pass a cinematic Turing Test for a computer-generated human. (British computer pioneer Alan Turing said that if you've got a machine hooked up on the other end of a wire and a person communicating with it can't tell if he's talking to a machine or a human, the machine is Artificially Intelligent.)

The synthespic bar will be raised to dizzying heights by the July 2001 release of Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, which will be the first feature film to contain an entire cast of ultra-realistic computer-generated humans. Based on the enormously popular Japanese video games (more than 31 million sold since 1990), the 150 million dollar epic will likely open a door that can't ever be closed. For one thing, the film's star, Aki Ross, is a virtual knockout, every bit as…interesting…in a much more "human" way than, say, Lara Croft. For example, Aki has 60,000 virtual hairs on her head, each capable of being manipulated according to the wind, her activities, her wardrobe, indeed her virtual mood.

To my extremely practised eye, since she is already slated to "appear" in a Maxim magazine layout in conjunction with the film's opening, Aki Ross may even pass the Ultimate Turing Test--that devised by famed movie director Martin Ritt and used to encapsulate the arcane concept of "movie star."

Martin Ritt, the late director of such classics as Hud, Sounder, and Norma Rae, whom I met years ago on the splendid Jon Voight film, Conrack, had a lot to say about the business of film entertainment. All movie stars, he told me, have a "high F.Q."--a "high fuckability quotient"--meaning, one supposes, that they bring out the best and the worst in us as human beings. When I consider that now, so many years later, an odd thought comes to mind: For a generation attuned to anime sex objects, Aki Ross may even be confusing--she looks like a Real Girl, Pinocchio's Wet Dream incarnate. And that, it would appear, is the point.

With a Screen Actors Guild strike looming this summer, Hollywood's movers and shakers may well be wishing for a whole stable of synthespians. They don't oversleep. They show up for work on time. And most important of all, they don't have affairs with their co-actors, the bottle, or non-prescription drugs.

Unlike mice and flying elephants however, they don't work for peanuts. And I'll give you odds Aki's already got herself a killer agent. Who may or may not be a living, breathing person.

On Hollywood and filmmaking:

Below the Line

sex drugs and divorce

a little life, interrupted
  1. Hecho en Mejico
  2. Entrances
  3. Sam's Song
  4. Hemingway and Fortuna
  5. Hummingbird on the Left
  6. The Long and Drunken Afternoon
  7. Safe in the Lap of the Gods
  8. Quetzal Birds in Love
  9. Angela in Paradise
  10. And the machine ran backwards

a secondhand coffin
how to act
Right. Me and Herman Melville
Scylla and Charybdis Approximately
snowflakes and nylon

I could've kissed Orson Welles
the broken dreams of Orson Welles
the last time I saw Orson Welles
The Other Side of the Wind

Below the Line
completion bond
Film Editing
Film Editor
Final Cut Pro
forced development
HD Video
king of the queens
Kubrick polishes a turd
movies from space
Persistence of Vision
Sven Nykvist
Wilford Brimley

21 Grams
Andrei Rublyov
Apocalypse Now Redux
Hearts and Minds
Ivan's Childhood
The Jazz Singer
The Sacrifice
We Were Soldiers
Wild Strawberries

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