The film industry has a long history of innovations and technological developments. Some have made a huge impact on the path of filmmaking and some.. slightly less so. While some filmmakers are in love with the older forms of technology such as using film-based cameras, there is always a demand for growth and experimentation.
This week, we’re taking a look at the tech behind ageing and de-ageing actors, the roots of which lie in 1920s silent films. Karl Struss, while shooting 1925’s Ben Hur: A Tale of the Christ, used a technique to hide sores made with red makeup on the faces of his actors by using a red filter. The filter hid the makeup and made it appear as if the injuries magically healed on camera. He took this technique a step further in 1931 by using a mix of red and green makeup to show the transformation of Dr Jekyll into Mr Hyde. The downside of these techniques is that they only worked in black and white films.
It would take over 70 years for further advances, during which time CGI swept across the industry. 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand was the first film to use CGI to de-age actors on screen (Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Patrick Stewart), using a program called Lola VFX, younger photos of the actors and a 2D procedure to achieve the look.
This instance sparked a new wave of interest in the technology and since then, we’ve seen ever more widespread use of de-ageing. Overtaking what makeup can achieve, CGI now allows VFX companies to use the same actors for narrative flashback scenes, rather than casting for a younger, similar looking actor. Couple this with the ever-increasing raft of nostalgia fueled sequels of old intellectual properties, and you can quickly see the value of being able to de-age an actor who may have last played that character decades prior.
Marvel Studios in particular has used this technique to great effect. From a flashback scene with a teenage Robert Downey Jr, played by the adult RDJ, to Samuel L Jackson in Captain Marvel looking 20 years younger, they are definitely one of the current leaders in the de-ageing field (check out this fascinating behind the scenes insight). Even the upcoming Spiderman: No Way Home features Alfred Molina de-aged by 17 years to reprise his role as Doctor Octavius.
And it’s not just making people younger. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story counted Peter Cushing (as well as a de-aged Carrie Fisher) in the cast despite his having died in 1994 (see how it was done here). Yes, you heard that right, the film features an actor that passed away 22 years before and trust us on this.. you can barely tell the difference. But therein lies a problem that has also been experienced in the music industry with holograms. Is it ethically acceptable to resurrect a person who has passed away and where does the line sit between paying homage and monetising a person who no longer has a say in how their reputation is upheld?
Sometimes advances come with unexpected drawbacks and of course, when you are actively acting and performing, you have a say in where and how your likeness is used. Once you’re gone, the rights to your image when you are well-known and respected are usually in the hands of family or whoever was instructed to manage your estate. This leads to a risk of endless exploitation of likenesses that would damage your legacy and cheapen the strength of your output when you were alive.
Alongside that, this technology has been taken further with the creation of deepfakes, a development in which a person’s likeness can be transplanted onto any video with terrifying effectiveness. Deepfakes are so effective (see this one with Tom Cruise) that you can hardly tell it’s not a video of the actual ‘faked’ person at all (especially with the use of artificial voice synthesis that replicates the sound of a person’s voice), and I’m sure you can imagine the danger if this tech fell into the wrong hands.
Arguably, unlike any previous development in filmmaking, the rise of VFX technology such as this presents one of the biggest leaps forward, as well as one of the biggest challenges. If used correctly, the opportunities are endless and the roots are in place for further advancements beyond anything that we can probably imagine at the moment (as a starting point, think entire live-action films consisting of CGI actors). But if used in a negative way without thought for the importance of image rights and integrity, we could find it difficult to separate the truth from the deepfakes sometime in the not-so-distant future.
Ultimately, in the words of Marvel’s Spider-Man, ‘with great power comes great responsibility’.