With Rogue One: A Star Wars Story having been in theatres for a few weeks now, one of the biggest talking points of the film has been the digital resurrection of the late Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. While there were plenty of rumors prior to release about the character appearing in the film, the villain ended up having an unexpectedly sizeable role as a secondary antagonist.
Reactions to the use of Cushing’s skeletal visage have ranged from praise over the effects to derision over morality, though the team behind the film maintains that his involvement was imperative to the story, given Tarkin’s position as Commander of the Death Star in Episode IV. “If he’s not in the movie, we’re going to have to explain why he’s not in the movie,” said Lucasfilm story development executive Kiri Hart to the New York Times. “This is kind of his thing.”
Industrial Light And Magic worked on Tarkin, with permission and input from Cushing’s estate. Actor Guy Henry portrayed the character on set, with his facial performance replaced by a digital recreation of Cushing in the film’s final cut. The team at ILM used archived daily footage from A New Hope to study and simulate the facial tics of Cushing. “When Peter Cushing makes an ‘aah’ sound, he doesn’t move his upper lip,” explained ILM chief creative officer John Knoll. “He only opens his jaw about halfway, and makes this square shape with his lower lip, that exposes his lower teeth.” Before these nuances in Cushing’s face were accounted for, the team felt like their creation resembled a relative of Cushing, and not the actor exactly. However, their first rule was that “realism trumped likeness.”
While ILM was certain they could pull off Tarkin as a fully-realized character in the film, there were back-up plans just in case, though it would have resulted in a significantly reduced on-screen presence for the character. “We did talk about Tarkin participating in conversations via hologram, or transferring that dialogue to other characters,” Knoll said.
Some of the criticism stemming from the use of Cushing’s likeness in Rogue One was that it opened the door to using the digital appearances of deceased actors in other films. Knoll, however, said he doesn’t see that happening, with Rogue One acting as a special cirumstance. “I don’t imagine that happening,” Knoll said. “This was done for very solid and defendable story reasons. This is a character that is very important to telling this kind of story. It is extremely labor-intensive and expensive to do. I don’t imagine anybody engaging in this kind of thing in a casual manner. We’re not planning on doing this digital re-creation extensively from now on. It just made sense for this particular movie.”