Why Hollywood’s de-aging technologies are terrifying in more ways than one
|National Post 07 Mar 2019 at 13:30|
A new beauty craze is sweeping Hollywood. No need to go under the knife or risk Botox injections. With the simple click of a mouse, you can now look decades younger.
This weekend, Captain Marvel will make extensive use of de-aging technology. Set in 1995, over a decade before the events of Iron Man, the film features performances from Samuel L. Jackson and Clark Gregg that have been de-aged in post-production. This new technology offers incredible new storytelling opportunities, but what other implications does it have?
For most of film history, making an actor look younger was achieved through practical efforts. Costuming and make-up did a lot of the leg work. Actors would wear toupées and vaseline would be smeared on lenses. Generally speaking, part of the movie-going experience for audiences included a willingness to suspend their disbelief for a flashback or two. In the mid-2000s, however, things began to change. Technology was improving and major studios began trying out visual effects to roll back the clock on their actors.
With the release of X-Men: The Last Stand in 2006, a turning point occurred: In a flashback scene, using a tool-box of tangible and digital techniques, actors Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen were de-aged based on reference photos and medical input. In before and after shots, features like noses and ears were shrunk and wrinkles were smoothed out. Even over a decade later, the images remain fairly credible. While in movement, the strangeness is amplified — especially near the mouth and eyes — it is no more distracting than any other visual effect from a blockbuster circa the mid-aughts.
The company behind this film, Lola Visual Effects, is still at the forefront of de-aging technology. They would work almost exclusively with Marvel and the X-Men series, turning back the clock on actors like Michael Douglas, Robert Downey, Jr. and Kurt Russell. They are also the studio behind The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, working on Brad Pitt’s century-spanning age transformation. Other major VFX companies, like Weta Digital (the Hobbit franchise and Aquaman) and Industrial Light & Magic (Star Wars and Martin Scorsese’s upcoming film The Irishman) have also become major players in the world of narrative de-aging.
For actors, this represents a double-edged sword of opportunity. While performers can now spend a few days working with an artist to achieve a seamless photorealistic ideal, what happens if the public or producers begin to prefer the illusion over reality?
Without much thought to consequences, we are moving ever closer to full-on human animation, if we haven’t transcended that point already. In car commercials and Star Wars films, we’ve already seen long-dead actors resurrected. While the technology still exists somewhere in the realm of the uncanny valley, it will only get better with time.
Entertainment law has already started to shift to take this into account. States like California have introduced legislation granting individuals the right to say what their image can and cannot be used for up to 70 years after their death. In the future, it seems increasingly likely more of us will be faced with the question of who owns and has access to our digital likeness.
As the world of industry, law and government seeks to catch up with this form of technology, face mashups are already accessible to any user with minimal digital knowledge and a little bit of patience. Videos, , have already been shared hundreds of millions of times. These kinds of videos, often called “deep-fakes,” have also been used to have politicians or celebrities do or say things they normally would not in heavily altered videos. Unsurprisingly, such techniques have been especially popular in the realm of pornography, with networks of users grafting their favourite Hollywood stars’ faces onto the bodies of adult film performers.
As technology advances at an exponential rate, the fallible realm of human law and ethics is straggling behind. While actors benefit now from having a few years shaved off and filmmakers no longer have to rely on shoddy make-up and soft focus for flashbacks, the ramifications suggest a path that leads toward a post-human entertainment world.
If we are already concerned with the influences of fake news, what happens when most of us can no longer determine real faces?
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