LOS ANGELES -- Actress Aki Ross does not exist, but her movie career is blossoming nevertheless.
The computerized 27-year-old stars in the sci-fi adventure "Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," the first feature-length film with an entire cast of nearly photorealistic animated humans.
The technology could change the definition of "performer."
"Unfortunately, actors are kind of bound to their own personal style, their own personal way of doing things," said Roy Sato, a senior animator on "Final Fantasy." "Whereas with Aki, well ... I can make her do anything I want."
For instance, "ER" actress Ming-Na, who supplied Ross' voice, delivered a serious reading of one line, and Sato made it seem sarcastic by tweaking the character's brow and lips.
The technology is advancing so fast that computerized avatars - the ultimate in forever-young, trouble-free stars - could eventually compete for roles with flesh-and-blood members of the Screen Actors Guild.
Eddie Murphy, who voiced the talking Donkey in another of this summer's digital trailblazers, the fairy-tale comedy "Shrek," marveled at the detail of that movie's characters. "One day they won't even need actors," he said - following the remark with a nervous laugh.
Every frame of "Final Fantasy," a thriller about invading alien phantoms, sprang to life from the computers of fledgling animation studio Square Pictures.
Kevin M. Ochs, an animation technician on "Final Fantasy," credited the realistic look of the characters' faces to flaws.
"Aki has sunspots, freckles, moles even acne," he said. "Her skin still looks very clean, but the variance in color gives her a more fleshy feel. If all these little details weren't there, you'd know something was wrong with the character but you probably couldn't point it out."
Thousands of intricate muscle controls helped animators suggest emotions such as confusion (through tiny tugs in the lips) or suppressed frustration (with the subtle flaring of nostrils and narrowing of the corners of the eyes) never detailed in the broad lines of traditional animation.
But why not just use real actors?
Hironobu Sakaguchi, the producer and director of "Final Fantasy," justified forging his characters in pixels by saying he needed them to perform impossibly outrageous stunts amid fireballs and freakish, otherworldly backgrounds.
The makers of "Shrek" wanted some realism for the character of a grumpy princess but they also needed her to be a little cartoony so she would blend in better with her co-stars - an ogre and a blabbermouth donkey.
"There's always that issue of expense, and putting a person in front of a camera is really cheap," said Jonathan Gibbs, who animated skin in "Shrek." "But you can't have someone too lifelike in our story or it would draw attention to the unreality of the other characters."
Actress Cree Summer, a veteran of cartoon voices who recently performed Princess Kida in "Atlantis: The Lost Empire," speculated that computerized actors won't cost real performers too much work because someone must still provide the voices.
In some ways, she said, digitization, just like traditional animation, can give actors a chance to play roles they could never get in real life.
"Being in the body of an African-American woman, I prefer animation. I get to be everybody. I don't have to always be the white girl's best friend," Summer said. "I can be the princess. I can make an inanimate object come to life. I can be a little boy. I can be anything."
In "Final Fantasy," Aki Ross is Caucasian, while Ming-Na, her voice, is of Chinese descent.
The Screen Actors Guild monitors the use of digital animation and its influence on acting but so far has found nothing worrisome, said spokesman Greg Krizman.
"You could hire an awful lot of our members for a lot less than it costs to create these (digital) characters," he said. "Once the price falls a lot, that might make the situation more disconcerting."
"Shrek" co-director Andrew Adamson said the question concerning computerized performers should remain, "Is there a good story reason to do it?"
In the future, even real actors may have themselves scanned to create digital clones. That way, an ailing star who dies during a project (like Oliver Reed in last summer's "Gladiator" or Nancy Marchand in HBO's "The Sopranos") could finish the role without complicated recutting of old scenes.
"Or an actor could continue making movies once he passed his prime for a particular role," Adamson said. "For example, Harrison Ford might want to appear in the next 'Indiana Jones' as a 30-year-old."
For now, the technology is too expensive to justify using it simply to clone bankable actors, said Sato, the "Final Fantasy" animator.
"Technically, it takes a lot of effort just to get where we are now," he said. "Why not just go out and find someone who looks like Harrison Ford?"
For actors, creating a computerized clone also carries the risk of losing control of the image. A bootleg scan of a star could potentially turn up in a porn film, for instance, or selling products the celebrity doesn't endorse.
"You have to think about the ethical questions," Adamson said. "Would that person want to play a certain role? Is the animator having the person act in the way they would have acted?"
Archive footage of dead actors has been altered for ads in recent years, such as commercials that made Fred Astaire appear to dance with a vacuum cleaner or John Wayne swill beer. The heirs to their estates approved such ads, but Astaire's widow, Robyn, has successfully sued numerous times to prevent others from appropriating his likeness without permission.
Critics have bristled at the commercialization approved by some families of the famous.
Recently, civil rights advocates criticized the heirs of Martin Luther King Jr. for allowing a digital version of him to appear in a TV commercial for a telecommunications company.
"Dr. King is not here to protect himself from his own relatives," said David J. Garrow, an Emory University historian who won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 biography "Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr."
Digitizing characters like Aki, whose facial characteristics derive from no known person, frees animators from such ethical conundrums. Square Pictures sculpted the characters' shape in computers, and traditional artists were hired to paint them.
Having invested nearly $115 million in the digital acting troupe, Square Pictures may now feature its "Final Fantasy" characters in other animated movies, director Sakaguchi said. Aside from a sequel, he'd like to see Ross play a hard-boiled detective. Her love interest in "Final Fantasy," the chiseled military officer Gray Edwards (voiced by Alec Baldwin), would play a villainous gangland thug, he added.
Sakaguchi has also said he'd like to make a computer-generated version of director Akira Kurosawa's 1954 adventure "The Seven Samurai."
Ross, meanwhile, recently sported a bikini and posed alongside real models in the men's magazine Maxim.
"Aki doesn't have an agent yet," Sakaguchi joked. "But there are several that have apparently contacted us."
On the Net:
"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" - http://www.finalfantasy.com
"Shrek" - http://www.shrek.com
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