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When the technology became available, people in the industry would've found it easy to overcome some of the normal movie limitations such as:

  • Studio and locations
  • Impossible human actions
  • Twins, animals, aliens, or any character limitations

Yet, with all such advantages wouldn't it be easier to recreate real-life characters and make biographical movies? Say, historical personalities or famous scientists or even celebrities from music/movie industry. Could it be because of humongous copyright permission issues?

Note: I'm certainly referring to major Hollywood studio movies.

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There are plenty out there if you look for them. Not as popular perhaps as animated versions of fables and fairy tales, but they are out there. –  System Down Apr 17 at 18:24

4 Answers 4

You question presumes the absence of something that I think, in fact, exists. The "Merry Melodies" cartoons of the 1930s routinely featured representations of the famous celebrities of the day. Many WWII cartoons featured the Axis leaders. Lots of actors have been portrayed in cartoons, voicing themselves (think of the Star Trek cartoons of the 1970s and the Mr T cartoons of the 1980s). And as pointed out by @Napoleon Wilson in the comments, the Simpsons routinely have portrayed real people (Michael Jackson, President Bush, etc.) through the present day.

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And not to forget all of nowadays's more or less satirical fair, like The Simpsons, South Park or Family Guy, which often employ celebrities (albeit with varying degrees of realism). Though, I guess the question is especially after biopics or at least depcitions with a strong dedication to realism. –  Napoleon Wilson Apr 17 at 18:54

I assume you are thinking about (hyper-)realistic renderings of real life persons, not cartoons ("When the technology became available"). Of course cartoons of real life persons exist.

For realistic renderings the technology is just not there yet at reasonable costs. The development up to the level of realism needed to be convincing is not linear; neither in pure tech nor in perception. The technical aspect is simply the pareto principle, the so called 80:20 rule. You can reach 80 percent of the goal with 20 percent of the effort. But then you need four times the effort already invested for the last fifth of the way. Of course these are not mathematical exact numbers; most of the time the ratio is worse and grows exponentially when getting closer to the goal.

In short: It is easy to do somehow human-looking animated models but is (still) extremely expensive to build real good ones that people will take for humans.

This leads to the famous uncanny valley effect. It basically describes that people will enjoy caricatures or cartoons of real humans; and of course they can be tricked with enough effort. But there is range in between where the animated models don't look like caricatures but like real humans - but not good enough in the details, e.g. the moving of the skin or subtle gestures. And that is something that people can't cope with. It feels uncanny not to know if it is a real person or an animation. So it is not enough to pour more money on the animation department but sometimes you have to hold them back to do something that isn't completely possible yet. Do something right. A good cartoon or a completely convincing rendering of a human. We are not there for the latter (at reasonable costs for normal movies). We will be in a few years and film making will change a lot then. So the premise of your question is not correct: "When the technology became available" It didn't become available yet (at reasonable costs, but tech is not the only limiting factor).

The Polar Express is a prime example for the uncanny valley effect. The movie makers did want to make a realistic model of Tom Hanks but you can feel in every moment that he is not. This makes it a quite scary movie.

Avatar is an example how this effect can be avoided. The humans in the movie are real life actors, the aliens are "realistic" renderings. With aliens that are not supposed to be convincing humans the effect doesn't occur. The aliens have human features so you can relate to their acting (two legs, two arms, head, normal body...) but you don't expect them to be human in every aspect. So you can just increase the quality of animation there without any backfiring effect.

The legal part of your question is hard and highly dependent on the legislation where you produce or distribute the movie. In general you have personality rights even for caricatures or renderings when your person can be clearly recognized or is even called by name. And that is the whole point of using stars in the first place. If it is about an "invented" character (think Borat, Ziggy Stardust or such) the normal copyright and intellectual property rules apply, those are protected.

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I think Tron Legacy is perhaps the first movie I've seen that seem to bridge the uncanny valley. I honestly didn't realize that it was CGI until a friend told me and even then I didn't believe him until I Googled it. I just thought that it was the usual effect - makeup making Jeff Bridges look younger. Then again, the lighting in Tron is unconventional making real-life actors appear plastic which may explain why it works. –  slebetman Jun 5 at 9:35

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey is a documentary series that contains multiple animations of famous historic physicians, for example Newton (Episode 3), to explain how the knowledge of today was achieved and why. Rather than using actors they tend to use animations to tell the (background) stories.

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Animated movies about real life personalities do exist

While not a common genre, there are movies that use animation to explore real people and real events.

I will quote one relatively recent example to demonstrate: Waltz with Bashir.

The movie is described by IMDB as:

An Israeli film director interviews fellow veterans of the 1982 invasion of Lebanon to reconstruct his own memories of his term of service in that conflict.

The animated movie was well received by critics. On its UK release in november 2008 the Independent observed:

An acclaimed new cartoon film has stirred Israel's conscience about its responsibility for the notorious 1982 massacre of Palestinians in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps...

Until a matter of months ago, very few Israelis realised that their army fired flares to light up Beirut's Sabra and Shatila refugee camps while Lebanese Christian militiamen committed the notorious massacre of Palestinian civilians there in 1982.

But Ari Folman, who as a 19-year-old soldier fired some of the flares, makes their descent through the sky over Beirut's beachfront one of the recurring images of Waltz With Bashir, his "animated documentary" that premiers in Britain this week.

This certainly shows that it is possible to create biographical movies about real people and events.

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