De-aging actors is Hollywood's new toy. But will prohibitive costs, the uncanny valley, and moral questions stop it in its infancy stage?
Movies like Gemini Man, The Irishman, and even Captain Marvel occur in a world that needs to have a flexible timeframe. Stories have clones, span generations, and characters we need to show in the past.
Hollywood used to answer this call by casting someone to play the younger version of the character. But the advent of new technology has brought us de-aging; a VFX process where we take the wrinkles our of actors' faces and make them appear more like their younger selves.
In addition to that, new tech allows us to digitally recreate actors. Thus, giving us full control of their body and expressions. While audiences work to adjust to seeing these faces and sometimes completely CGI people, let's look at the practicality behind these endeavors.
The Advent of the De-Aged Actor is Here: Prepare Yourselves
So, how did we get here?
X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006 employed de-aging for Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan. In 2008, we saw Brad Pitt undergo something similar for David Fincher's The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Button went on to win several Academy Awards and it appeared we had hit a new era.
But not until this year's The Irishman and Gemini Man did we get two movies driven by this tech. We saw glimpses in Rogue One when we got full digital recreations of Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin, but these movies take it to a new level.
Scorsese knew that his seasoned actors would never wear the ping-pong balls or motion capture, so he would have to find a new way to work. Enter ILM VFX supervisor Pablo Helman, who told The Hollywood Reporter about how he came up with his plan to execute the effects based on a request from Scorsese:
"Marty said to me, 'One thing I know for sure — Bob's an actor's actor, Pacino and Pesci as well. They're not going to wear a helmet with two little cameras and markers all over their faces."
What do you do when one of the most famous directors of all time asks for something? You figure it out.
ILM set out to develop performance-capture capabilities so that actors do not have to wear markers on set. ILM say it involves a three-camera rig with a main camera and two witness cameras, as well as companion software.
The price of these rigs factors heavily into The Irishman's $150 million budget.
Helman went on to say:
"We had taken the technology away from the actor and let the director and the actors do what they need to do. That kind of interaction (De Niro and Pacino playing against one another) can't be done in the moment when you have one actor acting against a tennis ball. We didn't alter any performances. There were changes that were made to the appearance, but not the choices they made in the bodies and also in the faces."
Each finished shot was then reviewed by Scorsese. "He would tell us if he felt the same way as he did when he selected the take, and if it would work for the movie."
That's all well and good for Scorsese, but Ang Lee spent the last few years digitally building a younger Will Smith. Lee told THR, "I believed it was time to try a digital human," Lee says. "You had to build the character, the detail and really study human details and the performance from our actor. I believe that's what you have to do if that's your lead character."
Okay, so how do you do that?
In the same Hollywood Reporter article, WETA reveals how they pulled it off: By gathering images of Smith at a younger age and studying anatomy and terms such as "nasolabial folds."
Guy Williams, WETA's VFX supervisor, says "If anything isn't right, it falls apart. We did a deep dive into how light interacts with skin and creating pigments under the layer of skin."
Gross, but also cool?
Smith plays both characters in the film. His current self, and then he wore a mo-cap suit (with the balls on his face) to play his younger self. Since Smith has become a better actor than when he started out, Lee even had to ask him to be a little worse. Why? So that his younger self would match the expressions they had digitally created.
But what about Smith being double the age of the other character? I mean, who among us still moves the way they did when they were young?
Williams explained that the production "had in our favor that Will is pretty healthy and still moves pretty youthfully. Making sure the youthfulness came through in the body was a consideration throughout."
So remember to exercise, people!
What's this all cost?
Darren Hendler, head of VFX house Digital Domain's digital human group, estimates that this could cost from $500,000 to $1 million to create one of these digital people. But producers could expect to pay anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 per shot, depending on the individual requirements of the performance in the scene.
These costs will drop with time and new technology -- but those are staggering numbers.
And with these great costs come bigger questions...
Is any of this ethical?
Who owns digital Will Smith? Ang Lee? Paramount? WETA? Now that they have him can they sell him to other people? Does Will have any say in what's done with him? Can he endorse Coke? Shoot a porno? Or do a sequel to Seven Pounds?
I kid with most of these jokes, but the questions are real.
When Star Wars brought Tarkin back, they spent a long time talking with the actor's family. Because he'd been dead for years.
As much as I want to see a Jimmy Stewart and Tom Hanks buddy comedy, is it ethical to build someone like that and put them in artistic endeavors?
And what about the disturbing rise in deep fakes? It seems like we've entered a scary time where you can deny saying something on video because they could recreate you. Or a video of you could be created saying or doing horrible things.
There are no clear answers here, but these discussions need to happen and are happening right now. Only time will tell what answers we accept as a society.
What's next? Learn the history of CGI in three minutes!
CGI got its start in the 1950s, in Hitchcock's Vertigo, but since then each year has marked an incredible leap forward in the technology. This video essay comprises CGI's history and its mark on cinema.
Watch and learn!