Hollywood Magic Can Overcome Even a Star's Death

The death of Heath Ledger has sparked questions about what a studio can do if an actor dies before a movie is complete. Producer Tom Pollock says an actor's voice can be replaced — as was done for a deleted scene in Spartacus that was restored after Laurence Olivier's death.

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When a Hollywood star dies, suddenly, there's often an unfinished movie left behind. That was the case with Heath Ledger. He had barely begun one movie and he'd managed finished shooting another, "The Dark Knight," the new Batman movie. Though finishing shooting is not generally the end of the movie, and Warner Brothers is hoping that "The Dark Knight" will be a summer blockbuster. And that situation led NPR's Kim Masters to wonder, is Hollywood movie magic advanced enough to overcome the death of a star?

KIM MASTERS: When Ledger died, Warner Brothers said he'd completed all necessary work for his role as the Joker in "The Dark Knight." But in Hollywood, there are rumors that he had not finished what's called final looping. That's when actors re-record their lines in a studio, syncing the sound to their performance on film. Producer Tom Pollack, who is not associated with "The Dark Knight," explains that there are many reasons why looping is common.

Mr. TOM POLLACK (Film Producer): There were some extraneous sound on the set during a particular take, you want to get it again. The inflections may have been wrong.

MASTERS: In this case, Warner Brother claims it has the sound it needs. But the movie won't be released until July, and with a project of this magnitude, it's common to loop dialogue and to even re-shoot scenes. Obviously, if the studio chose to make changes, Ledger's voice would have to be replicated by someone else. It's a problem that Pollack encountered in 1991.

He was chairman of Universal Pictures then, and the studio decided to restore and re-release the Stanley Kubrick film, "Spartacus."

Mr. POLLACK: Tony Curtis is the young slave, Lawrence Olivier is Crassus, the richest, most powerful man in Rome.

(Soundbite movie, "Spartacus")

Mr. LAWRENCE OLIVIER (Actor): (As Crassus) Antoninus, Sicilian, age 26 - singer of songs. For whom did you practice this wondrous talent? Hm?

Mr. TONY CURTIS (Actor): (As Antoninus) For the children of my master, whom I also taught the classics.

MASTERS: The studio came across a scene that had been deleted when the film was first released. In it, Olivier's character is being bathed, when he asks the slave if he eats snails and if he eats oysters.

Mr. POLLACK: It's a sexual metaphor for liking men or liking woman, and was so obvious that at the time in 1960 when the film came out, that scene was censored.

MASTERS: And Universal wanted to put it back, but the sound was lost.

Mr. POLLACK: And we looked everywhere, all the vaults, even bootlegged prints. No, we could not find it anywhere.

MASTERS: Curtis was available to re-record the dialogue, but Olivier was dead. So how then did the studio do this?

(Soundbite movie, "Spartacus")

Mr. ANTHONY HOPKINS (Actor): (As Crassus) Do you eat oysters?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Antoninus) When I had them, master.

Mr. HOPKINS: (As Crassus) Do you eat snails?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Antoninus) No, master.

Mr. HOPKINS: (As Crassus) Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?

Mr. CURTIS: (As Antoninus) No, master.

Mr. POLLACK: Joan Plowright, who was the widow of Lawrence Olivier, said, you know, Tony Hopkins always did the best Larry, and used to do it to his face.

MASTERS: And so, in the snails and oysters scene, the words coming out of Olivier's mouth are spoken by Anthony Hopkins. Does it work? Here's Olivier…

(Soundbite movie, "Spartacus")

Mr. OLIVIER: (as Crassus) What position have we, I wonder, for a boy of such varied gifts? Hm?

MASTERS: And this is Anthony Hopkins.

(Soundbite movie, "Spartacus")

Mr. HOPKINS: My taste includes both snails and oysters.

MASTERS: Pollack thinks the effect proves that it's possible to replace an actor's voice if necessary. And with today's technology, it's possible to replace much more.

Mr. POLLACK: Industrial Light and Magic or Digital Domain, those guys can do anything.

Unidentified Man: That's the (unintelligible), again.

MASTERS: Digital Domain is an effects house that has worked on movies like "Transformers" or the latest "Pirates of the Caribbean," and it seems they can do just about anything.

You could make me look as though I'm swinging off the Empire State Building?

Mr. KELLY PORT (Visual Effects Supervisor, Digital Domain): Oh, absolutely.

MASTERS: Kelly Port is a visuals effects supervisor. He shows us how his company created a rainstorm for the film "We Own the Night." The sequence was shot on a bright, sunny day.

Mr. PORT: So we had to kind of make it overcast, add fog, add the rain and remove all the hard shadows, because from the sunlight.

MASTERS: And, in fact, it looks, for all the world, like a downpour. But what can they do with humans? Digital Domain put Vin Diesel's face on a stuntman's body in the film "XXX." And they made Michael Jordan look like he's playing basketball with a younger version of himself for a Gatorade commercial.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Mr. MICHAEL JORDAN (Basketball Player): Nice shot.

Ms. KELLY PORT: You basically have a body double, and then you replace the head.

MASTERS: You replace the head or even the body using a three-dimensional scan.

Mr. PORT: And that character is then recreated in the computer, and we can have them, you know, swing from buildings, fall off of buildings, you know, get hit by cars. Anytime there's dialogue or talking, you basically animate the face to get it to say what you want it to say.

MASTERS: Actors aren't always scanned, but in the case of an effects-laden film like "The Dark Knight," it would have been routine for Health Ledger and the other stars. Port says it would be possible for an effects house to create a scene with Ledger in it, but it wouldn't quite ring true.

Mr. PORT: It's not going to be Heath Ledger no matter what. I mean, you can get another actor to act like Heath Ledger, but, you know, it's - you know, that's what's gone forever.

MASTERS: Even with state-of-the-art technology, the uniqueness of a person remains elusive - at least, so far. Kim Masters, NPR News.

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