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Bringing Legends Back to Life: Homage or Sacrilege?
By Alvin Soon - on 12 Sep 2013, 2:10pm

I’ve been a Bruce Lee fan for as far back as I can remember. So you can imagine my excitement when I saw this recent video starring a startlingly realistic computer animated Lee. Seeing the gung fu superstar standing vital and alive amidst the backdrop of modern Hong Kong brought a lump to my throat - a feeling of what could have been pushing against the sheer knowledge of impossibility - until the mirage concluded with an ad for Johnnie Walker.

What the bloody hell?

To be fair, nowhere in the ad does Lee, who died in 1973, take a swig of the drink, nor is there a scene where he’s even pictured together with a bottle of whisky. But it takes a wild stretch of faith to think that Lee - an obvious health and fitness fanatic - would consent to ever doing a whisky ad.

(For what it’s worth, his daughter Shannon Lee, who is the president of the Bruce Lee Foundation, was brought on board as a consultant for the ad, and she says “it’s a tribute, not an ad”. Johnnie Walker was required to pay the Lee family to license Bruce Lee’s likeness for use.)

This isn’t the first time a famous celebrity has been resurrected to sell product. Earlier this year, the Galaxy chocolate company brought Audrey Hepburn, who died in 1993, back to life in an ad for its chocolates. The ad itself was charmingly done, and once again, 3D Hepburn looks shockingly close to life - but this ad was even more blatant than Bruce Lee’s; with the 3D likeness shown eating and enjoying the company’s product.

3D resurrections aren’t just limited to the screen anymore. Last year, Tupac Shakur, who died in 1996, ‘appeared’ on stage at the Coachella music festival and ‘performed live’ with Snoop Dog and Dr. Dre. The hologram rapped and walked across the stage like just a ghost, but one composed with technology rather than superstition.

(If you're not familiar with Tupac, you should know that the video below has NSFW lyrics.)

Just recently, inspired by virtual Tupac’s creation, a virtual Teresa Teng surprised the audience at Taiwanese singer Jay Chou’s concerts in Taipei. The 3D recreation of the legendary songbird, who passed away in 1995, sang a duet of her song “What You Have to Say” with Chou, then sang two of Chou’s original hits, songs she never heard in her lifetime.

The 3D Teresa Teng was created by Digital Domain 3.0, the same company behind 3D Tupac. Frank Teng, brother of the late singer and chairman of the Teresa Teng Foundation, was part of the project, and said to be actively involved in the recreation.

I have to admit that I’m a fan of all these late legends who have been brought back to life. Seeing Lee, Hepburn, Tupac and Teng again, even in virtual form, pushed and pulled my emotions in antagonistic directions - I can’t watch these performances and deny the waves of nostalgia which come over me. I also can’t help feeling that it’s all wrong.

I admire the immense amount of work and artistry involved in recreating these past persons, I’m overawed by the advanced technology involved to make it work, and I recognize that there can be a lot of love behind some of these productions. I also understand that the use of these persons' likeness was granted by their individual estates, which included kin like Bruce Lee's daughter and Teresa Teng's brother. 

But the essential question is and always will remain unanswered: Would any of these deceased persons have agreed to have had their likeness used in such a way? Without knowing the answer, it’s hard to look at these works and draw the line where homage ends and sacrilege begins. Should the dead be left to rest and our memories be left alone?

As technology evolves, it's a sure bet that we'll see more and more of these virtual performances from deceased celebrities. But for all their closeness to the originals, the fact remains that none of these recreations are real. They inhabit the skins of the people we once knew, but they’re nothing more than automations - you can never recreate the spark which ignites something new and original from each living instant, the inspired moments which veer us off the programmed moment, the happy accidents of genius which transcend mere imitation. Life imitates art, but these performances are nothing more than art imitating death.

Alvin Soon

Alvin Soon / Deputy Editor

I like coffee and cameras, but not together.