A star is ... generated

They drowned in "Titanic," and they'll do battle for the fate of the universe in May, when the new and much anticipated "Star Wars" movie comes out.

But these actors are not real. They exist only as images in a computer's memory banks. Industrial Light & Magic, the California-based special-effects studio for the "Star Wars" series, calls them "synthespians."

Just as desktop filmmakers are using computers to make low-budget films, Hollywood is using digital technology to save on casting calls. Instead of hiring real people for their scenes of crowds and war and panic, directors are dreaming them up on a computer.

"Almost like 'Toy Story,' except it's realistic," says Chris Gore, publisher of Film Threat Weekly, a magazine that covers independent filmmaking. While the technology can mimic people at a distance, a few kinks will have to be worked out before synthespians can appear in a close-up. Like digital hair.

According to Mr. Gore, computers still can't quite make it look realistic all of the time. Other challenges include facial expressions and the way clothes move on a person. But the graphics are good enough that even the Screen Actors Guild has expressed concern.

So far, the technology hasn't created the synthespian equivalent of a Tom Hanks or Julia Roberts. Many directors contend that people relate best to real people. Still, as Hollywood contracts keep going up in price, who knows?

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