The best-kept secret of “The Mandalorian” Season 2 was Mark Hamill’s surprise cameo in the finale as a young Luke Skywalker, who offers to complete baby Grogu’s training in The Force. Yet how Hamill was de-aged has been kept under wraps until this week’s episode of “Disney Gallery: Star Wars: The Mandalorian” on Disney+.
However, Industrial Light & Magic VFX supervisor, Richard Bluff, took a deeper dive into the de-aging process with IndieWire.
“We knew we had to be faithful to the look of [Luke Skywalker] around the time of ‘Return of the Jedi,’ which was the last movie we saw him at that age,” Bluff said. “And that was the look we had to reproduce. So it was important to [showrunner] Jon Favreau and [executive producer] Dave Filoni that we bring Mark Hamill in to perform there on set [at Manhattan Beach Studios in L.A.], dressed in costume [by costume designer Shawna Trpcic], and using him in every way possible — not only to help advise on the performance, but also to use his physicality and his actual face whenever possible.”
But they also used a body double, Max Lloyd-Jones, for most of Skywalker’s physical movement “because clearly we needed a body double in his thirties rather than Mark’s senior age now,” Bluff said. “Jon was very tuned to those kind of issues when suddenly you’re trying to de-age somebody’s face 30 years and it’s especially difficult to then change their body posture or, more importantly, how they would physically move through a scene. Jon crafted the scene where there are only wide shots when Mark is walking through and then he comes to a stop, and he’s standing. So that’s why we felt we could leverage a lot of Mark’s skill into a wonderful performance.”
Not surprisingly, after auditioning every technique in ILM’s CG arsenal for de-aging, Favreau chose Lola Visual Effect’s 2.5D process. Lola, the industry leader in de-aging and Marvel’s go-to specialist, came highly recommended by Season 2 finale director Peyton Reed (the “Ant-Man” franchise). He previously worked with Lola on the de-aging of Michael Douglas as Anti-Man suit creator, Hank Pym, and developed a shorthand for success with VFX supervisor Trent Claus and the artists.
“Lola brought their technique to the table in photographing not only Mark in the onset lighting environment but also in their own lighting [and scanning] rig,” Bluff said. “They effectively reproduced a de-aged version of Mark for the shots by combining the texture from his face and also Max’s younger face. The biggest challenge for this sequence was that we weren’t de-aging Mark in every single shot, and we had a variety of performances that Lola had to work on, too.”
After compiling photographs and scenes of Hamill from “Return of the Jedi,” Lola applied its Photoshop-like technique involving skin smoothing and shape warping through 2D compositing. Lola also used the rapidly emerging deepfake tech, in which computer learning software combined photographs and footage of the young Hamill to create a CG composite of his face. But they stopped short of relying too heavily on deepfake, using it merely as a likeness guide.
“The resolution wasn’t high enough coming out of the software to be able to use it 1:1,” said Bluff. “But the technology continues to advance and is probably in a [better] place now than when we were using it.” (Ironically, after deepfake YouTuber Shamook demonstratively enhanced Lola’s work on his own, Lucasfilm subsequently hired the artist to work in ILM’s machine learning and AI space.)
The soft texture of Hamill’s skin was also intentional. “People’s memory of Luke Skywalker isn’t in 4K sharp resolution,” Bluff said. “That was a choice to match some of the imagery that we’ve seen in the past.
Favreau also decided to shoot Skywalker’s cameo with dark lighting. This not only emulated the look of the character in “Return of the Jedi” (particularly in Jabba’s palace), but also minimized the physical demands placed on the 69-year-old Hamill, the filmmakers, and Lola.
“Obviously we couldn’t match it exactly and there were lots of limitations, but that’s effectively what we decided to do,” Bluff said. “And the same goes for trying to get the posture, the costume, the atmosphere. It was all based upon steering the audience toward an image they remember seeing rather than putting the character in a completely new situation.”
“Disney Gallery: Star Wars: The Mandalorian” currently streams on Disney+.