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Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

It takes a lot to steal a movie from Al Pacino.

Three special-effects shops utilizing astonishing amounts of computer capacity, to start. Perhaps some help from the screen queens of Hollywood's golden age, too. And of course, you need to be the most beautiful and charismatic actress ever ... made.

``By all means, I'm thrilled with the results of what Simone looks like,'' says model Rachel Roberts, who sort of plays the computer-generated superstar in the movie of the same name. Yet the pixelated screen princess we see in the picture is the end result of massive digital massaging done to whatever footage Roberts actually filmed.

``There's always room for improvement,'' she says. ``I certainly don't wake up looking like that in the morning.''

In ``Simone,'' Pacino plays a desperate Hollywood director, Viktor Taransky, who comes across a powerful software program that enables him to generate the perfect (and perfectly pliable) movie star. As she grows into the biggest celebrity in the world, only Viktor knows that she isn't human. But after a while, Simone becomes more real, in the popular imagination, than control-freak Viktor can handle.

The brainchild of writer-director Andrew Niccol, who also wrote the acclaimed media satire ``The Truman Show,'' ``Simone'' itself is also the subject of an ``Is it real or isn't it?'' kind of promotional game. Until now, the movie's distributor, New Line Cinema, has tried to maintain the illusion that the movie's Simone is indeed an entirely virtual creation.

We must disclose that our conversation with Ms. Roberts - a Canadian- born, New York-based model who has never acted before - took place over the phone, so we can't definitively verify that she exists.

But a look at Roberts' page on the Web site reveals a lovely blonde who has graced the cover of Elle magazine and a Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. There's a definite resemblance to the cyberstar of the movie. But as Roberts herself noted, she's no Simone.

Bit player

``Simone's a hybrid; part pixels and part flesh-and-blood is the corporate line,'' wryly notes New Zealander Niccol. ``And it's not completely one actor; there are other actors involved in Simone. The state that she's in, she could never walk down the street in that way. Every frame of the film has been Simonized, as we say.''

The film's credits include a ``Simone wishes to thank the following for their contribution to the making of Simone'' section, in which such legendary names as Audrey Hepburn, Grace Kelly and Marilyn Monroe, as well as contemporary figures Mary J. Blige, Claire Forlani and Roberts, are listed. Niccol says that there are other, currently working actresses who helped to create the overall picture but wish for their input to remain anonymous.

``In different parts of the movie, there are different characters; not only Rachel, but there are mixtures of different stars and things like that,'' notes Will Robbins, co-owner with Kent Domaine of Black Box Digital, one of ``Simone's'' principal CG contributors. But Simonization went far beyond combining Roberts' characteristics with other organic sources.

``In-house software that we wrote allowed us to affect Rachel's facial features to the point where we could get the CG look that Andrew was shooting for,'' Robbins explains. ``From that point on, we treated every scene of the movie that she was in, which totaled out to be about 200 shots. We spent a lot of time removing eye blinks, facial features such as mouth movements, and doing mouth and eye substitutions, clean-up work on face and hair; a lot of different things.''

This after Roberts tried her darnedest to be as computerized perfect as she could before the cameras.

``I had to teach myself not to blink for two minutes straight, try to imitate slow-motion in my movements and I had to be very deliberate, when I was speaking, about what my body movements were,'' Roberts says. ``I couldn't fidget, which is more artificial than human. I guess it was finding the balance between that and being somewhat natural.''

Just getting warmed up

Then there was imitating Al Pacino. Since Simone is in all ways Taransky's creature, most of what she says comes straight from his mouth - via feminizing electronic rechanneling, of course. This meant that first-time actress Roberts had to effectively ape one of the most accomplished, and certainly one of the most powerful, movie actors in the world.

``Intimidating? Absolutely!'' she confirms. ``I lost 10 pounds on this shoot, just from nerves. I mean, who wouldn't be nervous doing that with Al Pacino, let alone your first time out?''

While the Oscar-winning veteran was as supportive as he could be, most of Roberts' interaction with Pacino was done over video feeds from separate soundstages.

``I could see what he was doing, and I tried to match his body language and his intonations when he spoke,'' she explains.

But once again, the final effect required a little help from silicon friends.

``We worked directly with (film editors) Paul Rubell and Ken Blackwell,'' Black Box's Robbins notes. ``They came up with a frame sequence where they would stagger the way that she would speak to match Al Pacino's vocal track. We would work backward from that, remove maybe every third frame from Simone and do little morphs between the remaining frames that would catch her up or slow her down according to what Al had already said.''

Niccol saw a lot of satirical potential in all of this Al mangling.

``I don't write with anyone in mind, but once I was finished I thought that there was something subversive about having Al Pacino, one of the world's most respected actors, saying, 'Who needs actors,' '' the filmmaker chuckles. ``I mean, he's Hollywood royalty, and has far more comic weight saying it than if a typical comedian did it.''

Jobs for legit actors

True. But ``Simone'' does revive the question that ``Final Fantasy'' seemed to answer, negatively, a year ago: What are the chances of virtually created synthespians actually replacing live movie actors in the near future?

``The Screen Actors Guild has nothing to fear,'' Niccol reckons, ``because while we can fool the eye, you can't fool the heart so easily. Pacino has this line in the film - 'As long as the performance is genuine, what does it matter if the actor's real?' And that's true, but it's very difficult to get a genuine performance from pixels. I think we'll be with flesh-and-blood actors for a while.''

As you'd expect, Robbins is more bullish about techno-actors.

``It's perfect timing for it,'' the effects maven says. ``With the baseball strike looming and people's salaries getting as high as they are, I think that everybody's taking a look at where to put their money these days. Obviously, if studios are going to save money by using synthespians - maybe not in the lead roles, but in background roles - I totally think that they will.

``Three or four years down the road, I think that you're going to see a lot of things like this that are unannounced,'' Robbins predicts. ``Instead of 'Simone: Digital Character,' you're going to see Simone and then find out later that she was digital. The trend is toward, hey, let's see what we can pass off.''


2 photos


(1 -- cover -- color) she's unreal

You've never met a woman like `Simone' before

(2) no caption (`Simone')
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Aug 23, 2002

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