Captain America: Civil War, and Digital De-ageing

Why digital de-ageing is Hollywood's current Holy Grail - and how Captain America: Civil War has helped...

This article contains spoilers for Captain America: Civil War and one widely-reported spoiler for Indy V.

We all know by now that Tony Stark is no stranger to psychoanalysis; in fact, the entirety of Iron Man 3’s plot was revealed by the post-credit sting to have been told to a snoozing Dr. Banner to help Stark “cut the weight of it in half” (and perhaps to give the audience a compelling reason for sitting through closing titles crediting three hundred and eighty seven visual effects companies). Captain America: Civil War, however, found the genius billionaire playboy philanthropist resorting to mind-boggling methods to get a little therapy, through B.A.R.F., brainwave-reading VR tech that allowed him to revisit his youth and experience the final farewell with his deceased parents that he’d always longed to have.

As impressive as the idea of B.A.R.F. may be (although Stark may want to work on the name), there was an equally-impressive technology at work in this scene – one that is quietly transforming the parameters of filmmaking. The digital de-aging process used to return the 51 year old Robert Downey Jr. to his Less Than Zero days, when he was little more than a teenager, were incredible, not only showcasing the marked advances in the technology since Ant-Man barely a year before, but destroying once and for all the “uncanny valley” criticisms raised by earlier efforts such as the younger Flynn in 2010’s Tron: Legacy.

Gone is the slightly plasticky sheen present in earlier attempts to use the technology such as in Tron: Legacy and The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button. The de-aged Downey Jr. was a seamless addition to an absorbing milieu, indistinguishable from Hope Davis and John Slattery throughout the entirety of the scene.

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Equally impressive is Marvel’s deployment of the technology – whilst it might be considered mean-spirited to argue that Benjamin Button was made primarily to showcase such technology (not least given how hard David Fincher had to push to get the film made), it’s not hard to argue that the CG technique is central to the film’s production.

Marvel however, have avoided using the practice as a gimmick around which a story centers, instead deploying it sparingly to add emotional depth to their characters. Allowing us as an audience to relive such a defining note of tragedy in Tony’s life alongside both past and present versions of himself was essential in creating sympathy for a character whose ego and brashness can make him easy to like but difficult to love – sympathy of course that would go on to play a fundamental role in the film’s finale, evoking rawer emotions from the audience when the killer of said parents was revealed to be none other than Bucky Barnes.

It doesn’t hurt Marvel that the richness of their universe affords them endless prospects in this sense either: as the various eras of the MCU continue to unfold, the opportunities for characters to appear as younger or older versions of themselves will continue to multiply. Whilst nothing has been confirmed yet in terms of plot, the studio are employing the services of Method VFX for the upcoming Doctor Strange, one of the few L.A. based visual effects companies that specialise in de-aging.

Up until now, Marvel have principally used Lola FX for such work (wimping up Chris Evans in The First Avenger, de-aging Michael Douglas in Ant-Man, and the aforementioned Civil War scene) but it wouldn’t be surprising if we see the practice in play once more in Doctor Strange. There are of course other franchises and characters under the Marvel banner that could benefit from magic facelifts (an era-hopping Nick Fury film? Take all of our money!) but there can be no doubting that the Distinguished Competition and other studios will have been looking at Marvel’s use of the technology from afar and allowing their creative types to run amok too.

For example, Disney have a couple of prime franchises that could benefit from de-aging their stars. Whilst Marvel’s parent company don’t own the rights to the Dick Tracy franchise (Warren Beatty himself has those), they did distribute, market and merchandise the 1990 film and with the recent news dropping that Beatty is seemingly serious about finally putting together a sequel, one wonders if the 79-year old wouldn’t be tempted to team up with the Mouse House and go under the digital knife.

In fairness to Beatty, it may be 26 years since Dick Tracy hit the silver screen but he could probably still play the iconic detective today without the aid of any post-production ballyhoo. Should you doubt the veracity of that claim, check him out as the craggy-faced gumshoe in a TCM special from 2010, made to prevent the rights reverting back to their original holders.

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Perhaps even more interestingly, the same is true of another ageing hero who resides squarely in their stable. Following what probably amounted to endless executive-level discussions and perhaps buoyed by his star turn as a grizzled Han Solo in last year’s The Force Awakens, Disney have resisted the urge to yell “reboot!” and instead commissioned a fifth Harrison Ford-starring Indiana Jones movie. Details are as yet scant, but Spielberg has given us one fascinatingly-flavored tidbit: Indy won’t be dying in the 2019 movie.

Reasons for publicising this monumental pre-emptive could be numerous – perhaps Spielberg is attempting to stave off the “soft reboot” whispers which will surely plague the production as long as Indy is accompanied by any sidekick under the age of 35. Or could he be trying to add some kind of award for “Earliest Spoiler Ever” to his already glittering awards cabinet? Maybe he’s just trying to lull us into a false sense of security so we’re left aghast when Mutt stabs him through the heart with a lightsaber before pitching him into an abyss. There’s always the possibility though that in spite of the story wrinkles yet to be ironed out, Spielberg can confidently state that Ford’s character won’t be getting killed off because Indy V isn’t a sequel to Crystal Skull: it’s a prequel and therefore he has to survive.

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It makes sense when you think about it: Ford will be 77 by the time the movie premieres, a trifle too old to be getting up to brawls involving aeroplane propellers and subterranean mine-cart joyrides; plus it allows Spielberg to avoid Mutt and Marion entanglements, de-ageing Ford for another classic adventure without miring him in continuity issues. It’ll be just like Crystal Skull never happened because at that point, well – it won’t have!

Will it happen? Probably not but the idea of de-aging a star throughout the entirety of a movie certainly isn’t an outlandish one – in fact, it’s already been done. Netflix’s resurrection of the Pee Wee Herman franchise (which like Dick Tracy was last seen in the early ’90s) earlier this year saw 63 year old star Paul Reubens digitally roll back the years to play the loveable man-child.

As the companies specialising in this type of VFX continue to multiply and the tech to create it becomes increasingly affordable, expect to see more and more movie stars play versions of themselves from an earlier era. One can see the appeal for actors too – in an industry where looks are weighed on equal terms with talent and a sagging jawline is tantamount to career suicide, growing numbers of stars will be prompting their agents to rifle through their back catalogues and start making some calls.

Although you wouldn’t tell simply from looking at Pee Wee’s cute lil’ face, there’s a darker side to all of this too. After all, it’s not without reason that stars like the greatly-missed Robin Williams have had iron-clad articles inserted into their wills to protect their likeness being used in movies and adverts after their deaths. It’s doubtful that any screen legend wants to ‘augment’ their legacy by hawking Galaxy bars like poor old Audrey Hepburn. Full facial scans are the norm these days for actors before embarking on principal photography and with high definition formats becoming ever more detailed, studios are constantly looking for methods to preserve as much of an actor’s digital likeness as possible, in order to minimise the damage should tragedy strike (as in the case of Paul Walker and Furious 7)… and probably because they also figure that it might be worth a few quid somewhere down the way.

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Predictably enough though, the real problems caused by digital de-aging (or ‘beauty work’ as it’s known in the biz) aren’t faced by super-rich, lawyered-up Hollywood icons but rather by us, Joe Q. Public, the Great Unwashed.

You see, whilst a few eye-popping examples of beauty work are wowing us and increasing the clamor for Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner to artificially roll back the years and make a Jewel Of The Nile sequel (I can’t be the only one, surely?), 95 percent of the digital touch ups that occur onscreen are so subtle that they remain unbeknownst to us and simply serve to perpetuate damaging myths about body image. Hard facts here become very difficult to find as VFX agencies are sworn to non-disclosure upon pain of being flayed alive, Game Of Thrones-style.

The stars, meanwhile, are naturally keen not to spill the beans, preferring instead that their adoring public believe them to be an un-ageing race of demi-gods that sustain their youthful vitality by feasting on the oxygen-rich blood of children. Although unconfirmed and always lacking actual names, there are plenty of stories out there (mainly revealed by members the VFX industry) that detail just how deeply the practice has pervaded the moviemaking industry.

Even stars with scruples are bowing to the pressure, as evidenced by one apparently well-known actress who twice refused beauty work on a project before relenting when she was informed that her two, younger male co-stars had insisted upon the treatment for themselves. There are a multitude of stories like this floating around the web and whilst their credentials are difficult to confirm, the depressing nature of their existence is sadly, all too real. For years, I’ve had to deal with just how unfavorably my upper body (which resembles two twigs stuck into a misshapen ball of plasticine) compares to Brad Pitt’s: now I have to somehow make peace with the fact that he can still look like that on a movie screen at 90. And all joking aside, I’m far from the most vulnerable demographic when it dealing with such issues.

And so, as with all new technologies (Skynet; ED-209; vuvezelas), we stand on a precipice where this incredibly powerful tool could be used to considerable creative effect or to the doom of mankind. A digital fountain of youth has the potential to be a double-edged sword in the industry, affording wish-fulfilment of our wildest movie imaginings or making us all feel pretty crummy about being anything less than physically perfect. As the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility and quite possibly great digital abs. There is at least a crumb of comfort however: if there’s one institution we can trust to be responsible with this Holy Grail, it has to be Hollywood, right?

This article comes from Den of Geek UK.

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