Digital Doppelgängers

1The doppelgänger (literally ‘double-goer’) of 18th and 19th century European literature and lore is a sinister likeness that dogs and shadows a protagonist heralding their death or descent into madness – a ‘spectral presentiment of disaster’ (Schwartz 84). Recently the term ‘digital doppelgänger’ has been adopted by the English-speaking entertainment and technology press to refer to a digital image of an actor or performer; whether that image is a computer-generated wire-frame model, an amalgamation of old film footage and artistry, or a three dimensional laser scan of the face and body’s topography. (Magid, Chimielewski)

2This paper examines some of the implications of this term and its linkage to a set of anxieties about the relationship between the self and its image. According to Friedrich Kittler, media of recording and storing bodily data are central to how many of us imagine identity today. Technologies such as photography and film ushered in a ‘technological rechristening of the soul’ (149). Kittler contends that these image technologies have had an impact on identity by creating ‘mechanised likenesses [that] roam the databanks that store bodies’ (96). In this context the use of the term ‘digital doppelgänger’ suggests some kind of perceived disruption to the way identity and image, or original and copy, relate.

3For example, a short article in Variety, ‘Garner finds viewing her digital doppelgänger surreal’, promotes the release of the videogame version of the television show Alias. But instead of the usual emphasis on the entertainment value of the game and its potential to extend the pleasures of the televisual text, this blurb focuses on the uncanniness of an encounter between the show’s lead, Jennifer Garner, and the digitally animated game character modelled from her features (Fritz 2003).

4An actor’s digital likeness can be made to perform actions that are beyond the will or physicality of the actor themselves. Such images have a variety of uses. In action cinema the digital likeness often replaces the actor’s stunt double, removing much of the risk previously borne by the human body in filming explosions, car chases and acrobatic leaps. Through its multiplication or manipulation the digital doppelgänger can expand the performative limits of the actor’s body and face. These figures also have an important role in video game versions of popular action or science fiction films such as the Wachowski brothers’ Matrix trilogy. The digital doppelgänger therefore extends the capabilities of the human performer’s image, bestowing ‘superhuman’ qualities and granting it entry to interactive media forms. The most serendipitous use of these images, however, is in the completion of films where an actor has died in mid-production, as when, for instance, Oliver Reed famously passed on during the filming of Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. In such cases the image literally substitutes for the once-living; its digitally animated gestures and expressions filling in for an inanimate body that can express and gesture no longer and never will again. The history of doppelgängers and doubles, you see, is intimately bound up with human mortality and the origins of image making.

5According to Otto Rank, the earliest connotations of the double in Indo-European lore were benign, entailing the immortality of the self. This incarnation stems from animistic beliefs in the manifestation of the soul in shadows, reflections and images (49-77) and is intimately connected to the magical origins of figurative representation. Andre Bazin argues that the most enduring form of image magic has been that concerned with rendering the subject immortal. In his essay ‘The Ontology of the Photographic Image’, he emphasises that the basic psychological impulse beneath the origins of the plastic arts was a desire to snatch mortal things from the indifferent flow of time – to cheat death through the creation of a substitute, a double, for the living body (9).

6However, by the post-Enlightenment era, Western belief in the preservative powers of the double had eroded, and subsequently, the meaning of this figure in folktales and literature came to be inverted. The double or doppelgänger became a spectral projection of the self, an ‘uncanny harbinger of death’ (Freud 324-5). Meanwhile, even as the haunted image persists as a motif in short stories, novels and film, rationally:


No one believes any longer in the ontological identity of model and image, but all are agreed that the image helps us to remember the subject and to preserve him from a second spiritual death (Bazin 9).

8Photographic and filmic images have aided Western cultures in keeping the dead in view, saving them from being totally forgotten. These images are filled in or animated by the subjective memory of the viewer. The digital likeness, however, is birthed in a computer and made to gesture in the performer’s stead, promising not just a ‘technological rechristening of the soul’, but the possibility of future career resurrection. Ron Magid reports:


Cyberware president David Addleman is hopeful that all stars will eventually stockpile their data, like the suspended bodies in Coma, just waiting for the day when technology will resurrect them for as yet undreamed-of projects. (Magid)

10This reference to the 1970s horror film, Coma, with its connotations of lifeless bodies and sinister scientific procedures, brings to mind unconscious forms, zombies awaiting resurrection, an actor’s image as puppet, a mindless figure forced to gesture at the control of another. These are fears of decorporealised detachment from one’s own likeness. It is a fear of the image being in exile from its referent, being endowed with the semblance of life though digital processes. In this fear we can hear the echoes of earlier anxieties about the double. But these fears also revisit earlier responses to the cinematic recording of the human image, ones that now may seem quaint to us in a culture where people fantasise of becoming media celebrities and indeed queue in their thousands for the chance.

11To put this into some historical perspective, it is worth noting how the figure of the double played a part in some responses to then new cinema technologies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Yuri Tsivian writes of the unease expressed in the early 1900s by Russian performers when encountering their own moving image on screen. For some the root of their discomfort was a belief that encountering their projected moving image would play havoc with their own internal self-image. For others, their unease was compounded by non-standardised projection speeds. Until the mid to late 1910s both camera and projector were cranked by hand. It was common for a projectionist to lend some haste to the action on the screen in order to finish work at the auditorium early. Early Russian writers on film were well aware of the projectionist’s role in transforming ‘calm fluent gesture’ into a ‘jerky convulsive twitch’, and making the ‘actors gesture like puppets’ (cited in Tsivian 53-54).

12Luigi Pirandello’s novel Shoot! from 1916 dealt with a cinema actress traumatised by the sight of her own ‘altered and disordered’ screen image (59-60). A playwright, Pirandello condemned the new media as reducing the craft of the living, breathing stage-actor to an insubstantial flickering phantom, a ‘dumb image’ subtracted from a moment of live action before the camera (105-6). Walter Benjamin refers to Pirandello’s novel in ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, recognising it as one of the first discourses on the relationship between the actor and their screen image. For Benjamin the screen actor is in exile from their image. He or she sends out his or her shadow to face the public and this decorporealised shadow heralds a diminishment of presence and aura for the audience (222).

13Benjamin suggests that in compensation for this diminishment of presence, the film industry ‘responds to the shrivelling of the aura with an artificial build-up of the “personality” outside the studio’ (224). The development of star-image discourse and celebrity works to collapse the split between person and decorporealised shadow, enveloping the two in the electrified glow of interconnected texts such as roles, studio publicity, glamour photography, interviews, and gossip. Star personality, celebrity scandal and gossip discourse have smoothed over this early unease, as have (importantly) the sheer ubiquity and democracy of mediated self-images. The mundane culture of home video has banished this sense of dark magic at work from the appearance of our own faces on screens.

14In the context of these arguments it remains to be seen what impact the ‘digital doppelgänger’ will have on notions of public identity and stardom, concepts of cinematic performance and media immortality. Further research is also required in order to uncover the implications of the digital double for the image cultures of indigenous peoples or for cinema industries such as Bollywood. As for the term ‘digital doppelgänger’ itself, perhaps with ubiquity and overuse, its older and more sinister connotations will be gradually papered over and forgotten. The term ‘doppelgänger’ suggests a copy that threatens its original with usurpation, but it may be that the digital doppelgänger functions in a not dissimilar way to the waxwork models at Madame Tussauds – as a confirmation of a celebrity’s place in the media galaxy, wholly reliant on the original star for its meaning and very existence.