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Marlon Brando: Actor, activist… special effects tech geek?
Though the late star was considered by many to be the greatest actor of the 20th century, Brando always had a love-hate relationship with his craft, often remarking that it was a silly profession for a grown adult. He was so frustrated by acting that, in the late 1980s, he embraced a new technology that promised to keep him on the big screen while simultaneously lightening his workload.
In the new documentary Listen to Me Marlon, director Stevan Riley stitches together intimate home footage that the actor took over the years and combines it with rare interviews to portray Brando as a complicated and volatile soul. But the actor still had a spark for life before his death at age 80 in 2004, and he was fascinated with visual effects, as you can see in this exclusive clip above from the documentary, which you can watch above. The footage was originally intended for an experimental film called Software, which Brando tried to make in the 1990s — more on that later — and features Brando, then in his seventies, delivering a monologue from Macbeth, his face rendered in blue pixels.
The technology in the clip, known as “digital equivalence,” involves creating a photo-realistic digital double of an actor that can look, move, and sound just like the original. It had long been a holy grail of the computer-graphics industry, and when Brando found out about its potential, he partnered with Scott Billups, a veteran cinematographer and graphics pioneer, in the pursuit of perfecting the technology.
“He dug technology — he was always had the latest system,” Billups, who contributed the footage to the new doc, told Yahoo Movies. “He was always upgraded. He had some new Macs before I did — and I was a Mac developer.”
The two met in the mid 1970s, but didn’t begin working together in earnest until the late 1980s, when Billups was conducting digital experiments with an actor who lived near Brando’s Hollywood estate (Billups declined to identify the thespian by name). While that neighbor was unnerved by the idea of creating a digital double, Brando eagerly volunteered to be the next test-subject.
“The friend was freaked, and thought it would kill acting and kill us all and put us out of business, but the test models worked, and you knew who was [on screen]. So Marlon was like, ‘I’m next, I’m next,’” Billups said. They worked closely with Stephen and Lloyd Addleman, brothers who invented an early version of the 3D scanner hardware, which Billups likened to an advanced supermarket grocery scanner and a spinning chair.
“The concept was for [the actor] to sit in this chair and get really still, and the scanner would go around you in 360 degrees [in] just under a minute,” Billups explained. “Sometimes the scanner would freeze up, so we’d spin the chair. You put somebody like Marlon in a chair and try to get an even spin on him — well, he’s really not the kind of guy who likes to sit still for long.”
Brando, David Addleson and Billups in the late ‘80s (Stephen Addleson)
Billups and Brando wound up doing four different tests of the technology throughout the late ‘80s and early ‘90s; one such test focused on replacing the actor in a film he probably shouldn’t have made anyway. “He was doing Island of Doctor Moreau,” Billups remembered, “and he said he could do half of that script digitally.”
That 1996 sci-fi movie, which co-starred Val Kilmer, was a notorious bomb, but the digital equivalence tests did lead to the duo working on an even more off-beat project: An adaptation of Rudy Rucker’s Philip K. Dick Award-winning cyberpunk novel Software, on which Billups and Brando began pre-production in 1997.
They set up shop at a company called House of Moves in Santa Monica, building a motion capture studio where they hosted Brando’s A-list friends, including Faye Dunaway. (Dennis Hopper was also attached to the film early on.) “We were scanning them and doing mo-cap — we were going to do this whole movie with digital equivalents,” Billups said. “You could do a movie with a week’s worth of work instead of sitting on set bored out of their minds for a couple months.”
Billups’ version of Software ultimately fell apart due to disagreements with producers and financiers; it was awfully expensive to attempt to make a film with such an ambitious and risky technology.
In the photo above, you can see Brando sitting in the lab. Below, we have scans of some of the early tests that Billups and Brando did together; the actor was required to speak — with exaggerated expression —every vowel and syllable, so that they could later generate a fully digital character that made the same exact facial movements. The result is found in the video at the top of this story.
Some early scans of Brando’s face
The collapse of Software didn’t sink the actor’s intense interest in technology; as the new century dawned, he pursued not just high-grade experimental electronics, but consumer-level tech, as well.
“Marlon was a closet geek. Well, not even in the closet — he was big into it,” Billups explained. “He was an ace with Photoshop. He would take people’s pictures and put them in places they never were. He’d say, ‘Remember when we were in so-and-so?’ and you’d see people trying to remember that situation.”
The trick to successfully confusing his friends, Billups explained, was being subtle about it. “He would maneuver it so wasn’t totally unbelievable; he would create an alternate reality,” Billups remembered. “He’d say, ‘I’ve got a picture of it right here, you’re looking at a picture of you at the Statue of Liberty.’ He would do this to all kinds of people, it was hilarious.”
Brando invested heavily in his hardware, always going after the latest computer systems — often owning them before Billups, who still makes his living in the visual effects industry. The actor was even an early user of CoSa After Effects, the post-production program used for green screen and other effects work, which was eventually sold to Adobe.
Billups remembers Brando first talking about potentially using motion capture and digital equivalence to perform his role as Jor-El in the original Superman movie, which came out in 1978. It’s taken almost 40 years for effects artists and engineers to realize the technology he was pursuing; this summer, audiences will see aged-down versions of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Michael Douglas in Terminator Genisys and Ant-Man, respectively. The tech isn’t perfect yet, but the facial scan used in those two blockbusters is a tremendous leap forward from where it was when Brando died in 2004.
In general, Brando would have loved how far technology has come, and it’s easy to imagine the actor being enamored with social media. Brando was a fan of the Myst PC game franchise, and was active in early forms of social media.
“He loved the anonymity of the web and ability to interact with people outside of his skin,” Billups recalled. “His online persona was that of Chinese exchange student and he handled it masterfully. Not in any skeezy way, but he could pull things out of people that might not have realized of themselves. He was quite masterful at this.”
His email address was just as curious: Brando went by the name BrainFlakes.
“He was the cleverest son of a bitch you’d ever met,” Billups added. “He was a really sweet guy.”
Listen to Me Marlon will be released at New York’s Film Forum on July 29, LA’s Landmark Theater on July 31, and rollout nationwide after that. It will also air on Showtime in the fall.