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L.A. Firm Gives Digital Life to Stars of Yesteryear

June 10, 1998|MARLA MATZER | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Why hire a second-tier sports coach to address your next company gathering, when you could get Groucho Marx? Granted, bons mots such as "a man's only as old as the woman he feels" may be politically incorrect, but he'd get everyone's attention.

But isn't Groucho, for lack of a better word, dead? No problem. A new Los Angeles-based firm plans to make stars of yesteryear available for speaking engagements, commercials and television appearances by early next year via digital technology. Virtual Celebrity is unveiling the concept at this week's Licensing '98 International show, being held at New York City's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center today through Thursday.

Because of the trend toward using such deceased celebrities as John Wayne and Fred Astaire in TV ads, commercials are a prime target for Virtual Celebrity. "We can create a Mikey [from the old Life cereal commercials] who doesn't age, a Mr. Whipple that won't die," said Jeffrey Lotman, chief executive of Virtual Celebrity and its sister company, Global Icons. Lotman, 37, founded the companies early this year after leaving his Philadelphia-based family-owned business, Keystone Foods.

Virtual Celebrity is sort of a cross between an agency for celebrity impersonators and a company that licenses existing images of dead stars for use in commercials. (Global Icons is a more traditional licensing agency.) With the permission and assistance of the star's estate, the company can create a "virtual" version of the actor by putting his or her scanned features onto a computer-created body.

The idea isn't totally unique, and, as with all new technology, there are bugs to be worked out. The method for animating the body is motion-capture, or real-time animation.

A live actor--who is also generally the voice impersonator for the character--wears a helmet device and a set of motion sensors anchored to various points on the body by straps. The sensors send information back to a computer, where the actor's movements are translated into a computerized image on-screen. With post-production tweaking, the effect can look surprisingly realistic.

"When I saw 'Forrest Gump' a few years ago [which featured Gump 'meeting' historical figures including John F. Kennedy], I thought, that's neat . . . but it's limited to what the character does in the original footage," said Lotman in an interview in his West Los Angeles office.

Lotman has contracted for at least partial rights to license such celebrities as Marx, W.C. Fields, Marlene Dietrich and Sammy Davis Jr.

Some competitors grumble privately that Lotman lacks experience and may be promising too much.

"The market for commercial use is limited and may already have peaked," said one competitor who asked not to be named. Outside of a handful of icons--including Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley and James Dean--there are few dead celebrities who are considered "sure things."

Although Lotman has the full permission of those who control the stars' estates, he realizes that the issue of "recreating" stars remains controversial.

Those that have signed on with Lotman, though, seem enthusiastic. "[Lotman] is really excited about what he's doing," said Ronald J. Fields, one of the five grandchildren of W.C. Fields who jointly manage the star's estate. "He has very secure financial backing and has this larger concept of making [W.C. Fields] a brand."

Fields pointed out that commercial exploitation of his grandfather's image is nothing new: Already, Fields has been used to hawk products from Motorola phones to Frito-Lay corn chips (Frito Lay's animated Fields character was a popular spokesman for the snacks in the 1970s). For the time being, Lotman has only electronic rights to Fields. Rights to license for other purposes (such as memorabilia) are under contract to the Beverly Hills-based Roger Richman Agency.

The Sammy Davis Jr. estate just signed for all rights with Lotman, following a protracted settlement with the Internal Revenue Service (which actually controlled the estate for several years).

"We were being courted by several other companies, but we ultimately felt that Jeff had the best all-around vision," said Albert R. Murray, an attorney for Davis' widow, Altovise Davis.

Whether or not substantial earnings will materialize is unclear, though Lotman thinks his approach of aggressive brand management will pay off.

In the case of Davis, Lotman hopes to gain certain rights to the "Rat Pack" as a group. Lotman hopes that might be enough to fly Virtual Celebrity to the moon.

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