Imagine you worked at a visual effects house and were told you had to make an 80-year-old film star look 45, then discovered said 80-year-old film star was Harrison Ford. What do you do? Make his hair a shade darker then head out for a month-long lunch? I’m kidding, of course.
Digital de-aging is one of the most intricate tricks in modern visual effects, requiring extraordinary delicacy in order to ensure the illusion never breaks. But if you had to a choose an ideal candidate for making the process look as successful as possible, the already supernaturally well-preserved Ford would be it.
And when the fifth Indiana Jones film is released next summer, this is what we’re going to get. The as-yet-untitled blockbuster opens in a castle in 1944, where the 45-year-old Indy is tangling once again with the Nazis. (The plot subsequently shifts to the 1969 space race, where Indy discovers the moon landing programme is being run by shady ex-Third Reich types: that puts him at 70 for the rest of the film, so need for computerised trickery there.)
Previously to navigate such a drastic time gap, a studio would have just used a younger actor – as was the case in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, whose own prologue featured the 19-year-old River Phoenix as the teenage Henry Jones Jr.
Today, though, Ford is able to play the character himself, with a reportedly seamless pixelly facelift. “My hope is that, although it will be talked about in terms of technology, you just watch it and go, ‘Oh my God, they just found footage. This was a thing they shot 40 years ago’,” producer Kathleen Kennedy told Empire magazine. “We’re dropping you into an adventure, something Indy is looking for, and instantly you have that feeling, ‘I’m in an Indiana Jones movie.’”
In order to pull off the effect, a new piece of software was created by Industrial Light and Magic to trawl through Ford’s old screen appearance, and map the actor’s younger face onto his present-day performance. Ford described the process as “a little spooky,” but added: “This is the first time I’ve seen it where I believe it.”
As recently as 15 years ago, digital de-aging was a pipe dream: the only way for an actor to cheat time was via a skilful surgeon’s knife. But since Martin Scorsese’s generation-spanning crime epic The Irishman made a virtue of its rejuvenated stars – the 76-year-old Robert De Niro and 79-year-old Al Pacino were rewound to 30 and 39 respectively – the effect has become a sort of fan-service flourish in the repertoire of features and shows with sufficiently generous budgets.
In the fifth episode of the Disney+ Star Wars series Obi-Wan, Ewan McGregor and Hayden Christensen were gently de-aged for a flashback sequence set during the prequel trilogy, while in The Mandalorian and The Book of Boba Fest, the now 71-year-old Mark Hamill’s craggy visage was spooled back almost four decades in order to bring Original Trilogy-era Luke Skywalker back to the screen. In 2016, Carrie Fisher was given the same treatment in Rogue One.
Here, the process was more drastic: Hamill’s facial performance was captured in a visual-data-gathering volume nicknamed ‘The Egg’, then grafted onto a younger body double, who would in turn mimic Hamill’s physical mannerisms on set. AI-driven deepfake technology was also used to fine-tune the effect, in which computers triangulate expressions from a vast library of vintage footage.
This was the technique also used in the Marvel films – Avengers: Endgame required around 200 shots to be individually age-adjusted, thanks to its intricate time-travelling plot – but notably not in Ang Lee’s Gemini Man, for which the visual effects house Weta Digital created a virtual 3D version of a young Will Smith, which was brought to life in turn by the real, older Smith in a performance capture suit. Perhaps thanks to The Irishman, the virtual cosmetic surgery approach seems to have beaten the handsome Gollum one – for now, at least.
It was the costly and time-consuming nature of the second technique that pushed up The Irishman’s original $125 million budget by more than a third since filming wrapped in March last year. Scorsese tested the technology in the summer of 2015 by reshooting the Christmas party scene from GoodFellas with De Niro, then asking ILM to alter this reference footage, sometimes known as a ‘plate’, to restore the actor to his 1990 glory. Back then, he was evidently persuaded by the results – yet the director later sounded unsure if the final effect was going to convince.
“Why I'm concerned – we're all concerned – is that we're so used to watching them as the older faces,” he told the English director Joanna Hogg on an episode of the A Bigger Canvas podcast. “Now, certain shots need more work on the eyes… [they’re] exactly the same eyes from the plate shot, but the wrinkles and things have changed. Does it change the eyes at all? If that's the case, what was in the eyes that I liked? Was it intensity? Was it gravitas? Was it threat?”
As any psychologist could tell you, human eyes give off a constant stream of microscopically subtle emotional cues: it’s what we typically think of as their sparkle. This is incredibly hard for visual effects artists to recreate, and when they don’t manage, characters can end up stumbling into the uncanny valley – a state of not-quite-lifelikeness we find instinctively unnerving, which research suggests is connected to long-ingrained societal taboos around corpses.
Watched today, there is something a little zombie-like about the first ever use of digital de-ageing on film, which came in the 2006 comic-book blockbuster X-Men: The Last Stand. But at the time, it represented an extraordinary breakthrough. Computers were on the verge of making something possible that could only have been previously suggested by recasting the role, or with facial prosthetics, or achieved via clever use of archive footage. (To de-age Terence Stamp in the 1999 thriller The Limey, Steven Soderbergh simply repurposed clips of the actor from the 1967 Ken Loach film Poor Cow.)
The Last Stand’s opening scene shows Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen’s characters, Professor Xavier and Magneto, 20 years in the past. It only lasts for two minutes, but it was designated one of Last Stand’s two “major” effects sequences: the other involved the far more conventionally dazzling uprooting of the Golden Gate Bridge. Interviewed in Ian Failes’s Masters of FX, visual effects supervisor Edson Williams recalls that the initial attempts “made the actors look like they had bad plastic surgery. We had to rethink the process, and break it down into individual steps like a surgeon would – digital derma-abrasion, nose jobs, and finally a facelift using deformation tools.”
Williams’s then-fledgling visual effects house, Lola, did later hire a cosmetic surgeon to help hone their techniques – and went on to become a big name in the currently booming field of invisible effects, which encompasses both de-ageing and the more clandestine “beauty work”, which smooths actors’ skin tones, perfects their make-up, enhances muscles and contours silhouettes.
By the time Lola started work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, their techniques had been considerably refined. They had to be. This time, the effect was the film: David Fincher’s 2008 historical drama starred Brad Pitt as a New Orleans foundling who ages in reverse. Not only was the software much sharper this time: Fincher was savvy enough to light and block his scenes in ways that allowed his audience’s imaginations to paper over any technical shortcomings.
Then, as now, the actors also have to do their bit. In Benjamin Button’s later sequences, Pitt had to move like his hunky Thelma and Louise-era former self had done – just as on the set of The Irishman, Scorsese employed a posture coach to help De Niro and Pacino carry themselves like men almost half their age. While making Gemini Man, meanwhile, Ang Lee discovered a crucial difference between the Will Smiths of 1989 and 2019.
“The biggest problem is Will is a much better actor today than he was 30 years ago,” he told reporters at a preview event.
“Ang told me, ‘I need to have you act less good,’” was how Smith put it.
However advanced the digital trickery becomes, it’s somehow reassuring to know that human talent – or an abject lack of it – will always have a part to play.