April 2021
Alan Dean Foster

Algorithm for the Deceased

Except in zombie films, we know we cannot raise the dead. But technology is making it increasingly easy for even talented amateurs to restore to some of the deceased a semblance of life.

I’m not talking about modern CGI, where an entire individual is recreated using computer graphics. I am referring to the use of advanced colorization techniques and AI to reanimate the appearance and in some cases the movements of the long departed.

Maude Adams, unknown photographer, 1890s
Maude Adams, after

This is a trend that began by using computers to colorize old black-and-white films. The first efforts were, at best, muddy and consisting of fuzzy imagery that looked like it had been colored with crayons. The necessary tech improved rapidly. Colors became more natural and the images sharper.

Following film, the technique was applied to classic television shows, so now we can watch episodes of I Love Lucy and revel in the sight of Lucille Ball’s red hair without flinching. Whether or not you agree with the practice, it has to be admitted that color adds sprightliness and immediacy to the old broadcasts. I suspect that before too long the technology required will become cheap and easy enough to use so that you can do it on your home computer, enabling you to render in color that favorite obscure TV show from your childhood (well, from the childhoods of folks my age, anyway).

I do not know at what point or place in time it occurred to someone that a similar technique could be equally applied to still as well as moving images. Adding color to still photos by means of hand-coloring has been with us almost since the invention of photography, proving that many people wanted images in color from the beginning. It’s one reason why folks continued to sit for portrait paintings long after photography provided a more accurate rendering of reality.

Emperor Severus Alexander (d. ACE 235)

I appreciate the aesthetic of b&w photography as much as anyone, but eliminating color does not always enhance life. It’s a different art form, much as silent film differs from sound. But from the standpoint of bringing people to life, b&w, especially early b&w, has a number of unavoidable drawbacks.

First off, well, dead people turn gray. No getting around that one. No matter how you try to rationalize the time and tech, sitters in 19th-century photos always appear just a little demised. Then there is the usual stiffness, the formality of their poses. This was largely, but not always, because it was considered appropriate to act formally when sitting for a formal portrait. Our ancestors, famous and otherwise, nearly always appeared downright stoic when having their pictures taken. And they rarely smile. Not only because they’re sitting for “formal” portraits, but because many had bad teeth.

Sarah Bernhardt after
Sarah Bernhardt by Nadar, 1896

The ritual of having to sit motionless for a painted portrait carried over into photography. Not to mention that sitters had no choice in the matter if they wanted the result to be sharp. Long exposure times meant that the subject simply could not move if the photographer was to capture a clear image.

What if newer, advanced colorization techniques could be combined with those of artificial intelligence to not only bring forth natural color from old b&w photos, but movement as well? As the writer Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

That is what we have now: a process more and more indistinguishable from magic. Consider George Washington. The president sat for many painted portraits, as befits the man and his station. Except: the man is just as valid as the station. What if we could not only view Washington in natural color, but see him blink? See his eyes move? Maybe even see him — smile? We have no photographs to work with, but what if a similar technique could be applied to paintings of the man? And to his successors?

Have a look:

Our predecessors did not appear exactly like us, of course. In those fading black-and-white images, with the antique makeup, jewelry and clothing, we rarely find them attractive, the men as well as the women. But add a little color, a little movement, perhaps even let an algorithm play with a hairstyle, and you have this:

I’ll match Maude Adams against any of today’s cosmetically enhanced beauties. With color and a smile, doesn’t Sarah Bernhardt look just a little like Elizabeth Taylor?
Why restrict ourselves chronologically? Paintings of the Roman emperors are scarce. But the ancient Romans insisted on accurate representations of their appearance in sculpture, so:

Hi, Julius.

What is amazing about this technology is that it is in its infancy. In less than ten years I expect Washington to stand up and speak, Caesar to move in three dimensions, and famous beauties to be available to substitute on your communications device for Siri and Alexa — not just verbally, but in person. In a hundred years ….

In a hundred years we’ll be able to invite them all around for a party.

Prescott resident Alan Dean Foster is the author of 130 books. Follow him at AlanDeanFoster. com.