Digital de-aging is Hollywood’s latest tech toy. (Think Sean Young’s Rachael replicant in the VFX Oscar-winning “Blade Runner 2049” or Kurt Russell in the Oscar-nominated “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2.”) However, the controversial CG process faces a major test next year with Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” and Ang Lee’s “Gemini Man.”
Robert De Niro and Al Pacino face off as real life mob hitman Frank Sheeran and labor union boss Jimmy Hoffa in Scorsese’s gangster biopic, as Industrial Light & Magic digitally removes decades from their appearances for a series of flashbacks. And elite 50-year-old assassin Will Smith gets stalked by his 23-year-old clone (created by Weta Digital) in Lee’s cutting edge sci-fi thriller.
Obviously, there’s more at stake here than the successful de-aging of Sean Young and Kurt Russell, or Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War,” and Michael Douglas in “Ant Man.” Any misstep into the Uncanny Valley could prove fatal. Then again, there’s no way Scorsese and Lee would take such risks if they weren’t confident that ILM and Weta could pull them off.
Scorsese’s Latest Gangster Gambit
“The time is definitely ripe to make de-aging or an older actor playing a younger one quite possible and almost undetectable to the audience,” said Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Rob Legato (“The Jungle Book, “Hugo”). “As with most things, while the technique and technology have come of age, the taste factor and choosing the right method of acquiring the underlying performance (and the performance itself) separates its believability and effectiveness.”
In “The Irishman,” Sheeran, who was allegedly involved in the death of Hoffa, looks back at his life during key moments throughout the decades. The budget has reportedly soared past $140 million, as ILM begins VFX work, with Netflix releasing the movie next year.
However, it should mark a definite improvement on ILM’s controversial de-aging of the late Peter Cushing (Grand Moff Tarkin) and Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia) in “Rogue One.” The circumstances here are very different, though, in which De Niro and Pacino are more actively involved in their face-mapping and ILM can better match their iconic performances from, say, “The Godfather” and “The Godfather Part II.” ILM can also push its evolved Oscar-winning facial performance-capture solving system more effectively in optimal lighting conditions before de-aging more believably with state-of-the-art animation tools, mixing and matching with younger body doubles.
Why not just cast younger actors? To better maintain the strong emotional connections that we have to these legendary actors. “Some of the pitfalls include trying too hard to slavishly match the look of the actor themselves to their younger version from previous films or appearances,” added Legato.
“Too many factors are at hand at any given time, including lighting, weight, health, and camera lenses etc. that determine how we look. Trying to match all new material to one look causes some unnatural alterations to the new mask, which also alters the performance. It’s hard to tell what is wrong, but we detect something is. The exciting part is a great actor can play a multitude of characters of any age or body type with the same success of Gary Oldman’s [Oscar-winning] portrayal [of Winston Churchill] in ‘The Darkest Hour.'”
Trying to Deliver the Most Convincing Digital Human
“Gemini Man,” which spawned an experimental Disney de-aging test in the early 2000s, is analogous to the VFX Oscar winner, “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.” It required technology to catch up to its digital human scenario. Like “Billy Lynn’s Long Half-Time Walk,” Lee is also shooting “Gemini Man” at 120fps/4k/3D (lensed by Dion Beebe). Jerry Bruckheimer produces with David Ellison.
“The clone (created through motion capture) is a major character in the film, and is present for 400-plus scenes in over half the movie, delivering full ‘in your face’ emotional performances,” said Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (“Life of Pi”). “Our full methodology involves a combination of scenes where Will plays his younger self wearing appropriate costumes for his body and a motion capture head rig. These scenes are done ‘on set’ and cover all of the action where young and old versions are not on screen together.
“For scenes where both are playing against each other, we have a body double for the young character. Both he and Will are filmed together on set. The geometry of the set is recreated later in a motion capture volume where Will performs the young character over again. Given the tight coupling with head and body action, we will often need to fully replace the body double with a digital version, though there will be times when we can salvage some of him and just replace the head.”
Because of the magnified, large-format scrutiny of its digital humans, “Gemini Man” requires a more complex de-aging technique than what Lola achieves with its revered 2D skin smothing and shape warping on the Marvel movies. “That’s why we are pushing the envelope as hard as we possibly can to potentially be the first to deliver a fully convincing digital human,” Westenhofer added.