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The electronic characters Woody and Buzz Lightyear in the film Toy Story and the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park have shown that computer imaging systems can generate extraordinarily plausible animated images.

The next stage, presaged by that eighties creation named for a multi-storey car park sign, Max Headroom, has been to simulate actors with accurate depiction of movements and expressions; such a character is described by William Gibson in his 1996 novel Idoru: “She is Rei Toei. She is a personality-construct, a congeries of software agents, the creation of information-designers. She is akin to what I believe they call a ‘synthespian,’ in Hollywood.”

The state of the art is now such that computer-generated actors, synthespians, can be rendered with considerable realism. Examples include Gollum in the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Yoda in the Star Wars films, and Davey Jones in Pirates of the Caribbean, Dead Man’s Chest. The technique is becoming so common as to be unremarkable.

The term synthespian is a blend of synthetic and thespian. In the USA, the word has been a trademark since the late 1980s of the Kleiser-Walczak Construction Co., whose principals, Jeff Kleiser and Diana Walczak, worked on Judge Dredd and many other films, and have pioneered many of the techniques.

Other terms sometimes used are cyberhuman, V-human (for “virtual human”) and vactor (for “virtual actor”).

A failing filmmaker constructs a “synthespian”, a digital actress, whose beauty and charisma quickly impress movie fans across the world — but the adoring public are convinced she is real, forcing him to resort to desperate measures to maintain the deception.

Evening Standard, 21 Feb. 2005

V-humans have only recently become feasible cause of the sheer amount of computer power required to render them in real-time. In the movie industry, the use of entirely computer-generated actors, or “synthespians”, is becoming big business. Many of the crowd scenes in the movie Titanic for example, used only synthespians — not an extra in sight.

Personal Computer World, Oct. 1998

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Copyright © Michael Quinion, 1996–. All rights reserved.

Page created 22 Mar 1997; Last updated 22 Jul 2006