Dead Men Tell No Tales: How AI Is Bringing Your Favourite Celebrities Back from the Dead

8 Min Read

Nayeem Ehtesham

Here’s an interesting fact, there are companies that represent famous dead people. It goes something like this: Suppose your husband who has died recently (again, suppose), was a famous movie star. So, one of these companies sends their lawyers to your husband’s funeral. They come in a shining black SUV, wearing black suits and black sunglasses. They pray for your husband in silence.

The next day, the men in black come again. And this time, they knock on your door.

“Ma’am, we know it’s not the most befitting time for you to talk about this. But I’m afraid it’s urgent.”

“What? Is grandpa dead too?”

“We don’t know about that ma’am. We came here to talk about your late husband. His legacy needs to be protected.”

The men in black go on to delineate how your husband’s name, photographs, and signature can still be used in films, advertisements, or endorsements. And finally, disguised as a passing remark, they’d drop the big fat dynamite: There’s profit to be made from this. 

“There’s money involved?” You don’t notice it, but your eyes have lit up. 

“Yes ma’am. Plenty. And also, we have an offer from a major film studio who wants your late husband to reprise his role as “Insecto” in their upcoming superhero movie. Shall we begin with the paperwork?”

So you sign a few papers and the lawyers leave.


It’s not a joke. There are companies that represent famous dead people like Neil Armstrong, Marilyn Monroe, Christopher Reeves, and Malcolm X, to name a few. And every time a picture, a clip, or even the name of any of them appear in a movie, a magazine, or anything else that’s commercial, their families make money. There’s even an annual list of top-earning dead celebrities. Michael Jackson, who topped the list multiple times, has earned more than 1 billion dollars since his death in 2009. But recently, the advancement in AI technology has not just decorated the stages of Las Vegas with holograms of Michael Jackson but also has turned this business, which was just a niche for decades since its inception, into a billion-dollar goldmine. 

James Dean, the iconic movie star who tragically died in 1955 at the age of 24, will return as a CGI character in a recently announced movie called Finding Jack, a Vietnam war movie where Dean will have a significant and “realistic” role, according to the film’s two directors. His face will be digitally added on to another actor’s face, with yet another actor providing the voice.

The following statement has not been taken from the script of Hotel Transylvania

“This opens up a whole new opportunity for many of our clients who are no longer with us,” said Mark Roesler in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. He’s the CEO of CMG Worldwide, the company that represents Dean’s family. The company was formed in 1982 after Mark Rosler found out there was no system in place that would represent deceased celebrities, neither was there a law preventing such a system from taking birth.

This is neither science fiction nor an aberration. In fact, far from it. The late Carrie Fisher appeared in 2016’s Rogue One and last year’s Rise of Skywalker as various digital versions of herself with the help of old, unused footage. Rogue One also featured a digital Peter Cushing, who had died in 1994. But his death could not prevent him from coming back as Governor Wilhuff Tarkin, the commander of the death star (Ironically, the death star also keeps reappearing under different names no matter how many times it’s destroyed).      

A company named Worldwide XR recently announced that it holds the rights to more than 400 dead celebrities and historical figures. There are reports that the families of these celebrities often approach them for representation if the men in black don’t knock on their doors first. This obviously raises questions about cinema’s future. And with decade-spanning franchises like MCU and Star Wars, and a worldwide audience that’s consuming nostalgia more than ever, the possibility of the posthumous casting of famous actors does not seem like a crazy idea. Disney is already leading the way, and we probably haven’t seen the last of Carrie Fisher and Peter Cushing.

It’s normal to assume that an industry that couldn’t even get rid of Superman’s mustache without making a fool of itself would start digging up dead celebrities anytime soon. But the possibility still lurks, especially with the cost of digital effects decreasing due to advancements in AI technologies and practical effects becoming a luxury.                               

“Imagine a studio wants to create a movie but does not have the production budget necessary for sets, actors, studio time. Digital reuse may provide a low-budget option to produce movies that would otherwise not exist,” says David A. Simon, a visiting assistant professor at the University of Kansas and a fellow at the Hanken School of Economics, in an interview with Wired.

Whether future cinema will be like looking at the inside of a refrigerator, only time will tell. But the topic is moot. There is the ethical issue of honouring the deceased and of respecting an artist’s legacy. There is also the matter of consent. Would the artist have allowed his images to be used posthumously? Robin Williams famously filed a clause that restricted any profit from his name, images, and voice for 25 years after his death. So, he won’t be eligible for making it to the list of top-earning dead celebrities until 2039.


Will the people of 2039 cheer Robin Williams’ return on screen? Only 2039 can answer that.


Nayeem Ehtesham loves to read and believes his degree in computer science has helped him write funny stories using his computer. 

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