A tear added to an actor's cheek, removing signs of breathing from someone supposed to be dead, eliminating awkward blinks in a longing gaze. While this is hardly the first time such an issue has been brought up, a recent article highlights the digital manipulation of actors and questions the moral implications being able to alter an actor's performance at will.
It is often easier and cheaper to enhance, correct, or wildly alter an actor's performance than to reshoot a scene. Even in my own brief forays into what are nominally low-budget films, I've come to realize how many people and how much time is involved in even the most simple shot. Questions arising from the advancement of computer technology making this easier and faster have been around at lesat since the 80s, though the first time I can really remember hearing about it was after Jurassic Park where the little girl's face was digitally superimposed onto a stunt double's body.
As with those who oppose genetic food modification, a practice that has been taking place for millenia in the form of selctive breeding, I sometimes wonder what, exactly, people who take umbrage about such things imagine is so wildly different with the new technology versus the old way of doing things.
Film has never been honest, nor would we want it to be. The auteur theory of cinema holds that the point of film is to convey to the audience what the director wants them to see, and every film released to a box office has done exactly that -- put onto the silver screen more or less what was in the director's mind's eye, and we pay for the privilege of getting away from reality.
Actors wear makeup and costumes to enhance beauty or transform into improbable characters and creatures. Their hair and wardrobe are professionally tailored and attended to every ten minutes by teams of professionals. They are lit at flattering angles not present in reality, their scenes are cut and edited to perfection, and special effects are added post-production to give them the proper background, explosions, laser guns, or whatever else is needed. Really, the entire concept of mise en scene and the control the director has over this stands testament to the fact that film is not real, and never has been. We wouldn't have it any other way.
Yet the entire practice seems to be shrouded in a "don't ask, don't tell" pact of secrecy, as though making actors appear to do or be something they aren't is somehow a new and sketchy practice.
Some have gone so far as to worry that the time is approaching when actors will no longer strictly be necessary; it reminds me of a discussion I remember having with my friends shortly after seeing Matrix Reloaded, where Keanu Reeves' likeness appeared entirely in CG form to fight CG Hugo Weavings by the CG hundreds; despite the snorts of derision from some people, the effect was amazingly convincing at the time, and the faults stemmed more from the rapid motions and camera movements involved than in any real flaw with the computer-generated image of Neo.
However, despite the worries of actors, the embarrassment of directors, and the stony silence of editors, I don't believe we are in any danger of losing our beloved Hollywood A-list. Even with the continual advances in CGI technology, where it may soon be feasible to portray a human realistically though no human ever stood in front of a camera, much of the characters we've come to love over the years have been a result not of a brainless actor dutifully reciting lines, but from improvisation and other random, unexpected things that neither the writer nor the director had in mind.
The slurping noise made by Hannibal Lector whilst trying to intimidate Starling was completely unscripted; a spur of the moment thing from Anthony Hopkins. It's a fine example of how actors work with the directors to round out a character; the final product on the screen is the end result of a collaborative effort of several people, never a single writer or director's idea.
Computers may simulate an image well -- maybe even better than reality, soon. But, discounting some far-off vision of true AI, it's questionable whether it will ever be able to reproduce the nuances of Hopkin's performance that brought Hannibal to life and made him such a convincingly real character. It may never get to reproduce the particularly peculiar cadence of Hugo Weaving's Agent Smith which made him seem so calculating and mechanized. A team of effects artists may never be able to duplicate the natural ease with which Henry Fonda portrayed Juror #8, or the dark inner conflicts of Robert DeNiro's Jake Lamotta.
Some of us still go to the movies to appreciate the artistry of the work as a whole, and that artistry includes the actors and how they interpret and modify the role. Even when CGI can reproduce the human likeness with absolute perfection, notice that today, people still go to plays and musicals where there are few special effects, no multiple takes and retries, relatively simple backdrops, and no whiz-bang computer graphics: just a stage, a solid script, a good crew, and talented actors. There's something to be said for the art of performance that computers can't take away.