Paulie’s Perspective: The De-Aging Of Hollywood

So Hollywood currently has two movies that rely extremely heavily on the new “De-Aging” of Hollywood.  We have Ang Lee’s Gemini Man” starring Will Smith who co-stars with a younger Will Smith, and Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” starring a legendary trio all in their 70’s – Pesci, DeNiro and Pacino.  A stellar cast for sure, but the technology seems to be the star here.

Two films – using two of the best visual effects companies on the planet.  Let’s take Gemini Man first.  Director Ang Lee chose Weta Digital, based in New Zealand. Weta had to take a 51 year old Will Smith and make him into a nimble 23 year old Will Smith, then have him fight himself. No easy feat. Weta Digital is the company started by Peter Jackson for The Lord Of The Rings movies. Weta was used by Peter Jackson for everything from King Kong to The Hobbit.

Weta Digital used over 500 visual engineers and took two whole years to get their job done, and they did it the easy way. To be clear, this is not the “De-Aging” technique – this is was creating an entire Will Smith head and putting it on a stunt double, stand-in or fully digital body. Will Smith used the goofy helmet and dots on the face that we see so many times in Marvel BTS footage. Weta took footage from a young Will Smith and completely recreated him for this film. So you won’t see a “de-aged” Will Smith, you’ll see more like a Playstation 4 Will Smith. A fully recreated 23 year old face and hair and head Will Smith. The face, as we all know, is the most important part, and the toughest to recreate.

Gemini Man had a budget of $138 million, and their main mission was to create the first ever fully digital human, who is supposed to look like and act like Will Smith. Maybe they could used some of the eyes during Will Smith’s performance, we don’t know. But that was pretty much the extent of it. When the two were in the same scene together, they would shoot Will first, as old Will, well, as regular Will, with a reference actor playing young Will. Then they would shoot Will as young Will on a motion capture stage, with the helmet on and the dots on his face, with a reference actor playing old Will. Weta would then perform digital face replacement on the reference actor’s body. Action sequences would normally involve two fully digital doubles for the scene. 

Lots of digital work, and every shot has to look perfect as they are moving around on the big screen. Let’s give you some numbers. First to create a very basic movable model of a human, it can generally cost $500,000 to $1 million. That’s just for the basic model. Then it’s $100,000 per shot, depending on the scene. This kind of cost can quickly add up, which is why most studios and directors prefer the “De-Aging” process, where you just kind of clean the guy up a bit instead of recreating the whole head and sometimes body.

As this kind of technology gets used more and more, actors are considering their “digital likeness” in their contract. When they are too old or have passed on, studios can take old footage of an actor, and re-use it or re-purpose it for a movie. Robin Williams had it in his contract with Disney, and I think we will see more of it in years to come as technology offers more uses for actors, alive, dead or just too old. In the future I could see a studio saying  “I want Pacino in this” and the digital team asks, “which Pacino sir, Godfather Pacino, Serpico Pacino or Scent Of A Woman Pacino” And they would simply pay his estate the salary, and recreate him for the role. 

Speaking of Pacino – let’s get to the The Irishman. Now this Holy Trinity, Pesci, Pacino and DeNiro are all in their 70’s. They don’t walk fast, don’t talk fast, sometimes nap during inappropriate times. Scorsese comes along and wants them all in their 40’s.  What? How? Well Martin picks the legendary ILM to complete this task.

Now Martin has said many times, he was never ever going to ask these legendary figures to wear helmets and dots on their faces like Will Smith did for Gemini Man. So Martin asked ILM to come up with another way of “De-Aging” these guys.

Now “De-Aging” has been used by Marvel for a number of years now. Specifically for Robert Downey Jr, and Samuel L Jackson, not to take anything away from them. These super heroes have been around for ten years, a little smidge here and there doesn’t hurt. So this process is tried and true and very well known already – unlike Ang Lee’s method in Gemini Man. 

Martin had a budget of about $159 million, and his film is going to have it’s run mainly on Netflix. It will be in theaters for a limited time to be eligible for Oscar contention, but mainly it’s on Netflix. This could help to hide any imperfections the VFX has. 

So Marty says no helmets, and no dots for my boys, ILM, what can we do? Well ILM answered with a special camera rigging of it’s own.  Instead of tying down the actors with the technology, the cameras and computers are going to do all the work in real time, on set. So Al just has to act like Al, and Pesci like Pesci and Bobby like Bobby. No dots, no helmets, no GoPro in their face.

Three cameras with three different purposes were used for each shot and for each set up. ILM used a main camera, and two witness cameras that were hooked up to companion software. Marty has said they used more trucks of equipment then ever before, but it was worth it. These kinds of actors are old school, method actors who tend to improvise and go where they want and say what they want in the moment, and Marty felt having helmets on their heads would limit their abilities and kind of tie them down on the set.

So with these guys, unlike Will Smith, their faces are there, just touched up, and their bodies are their own, with their own movements and gestures.  ILM kind of made the perfect mix of real actor and digital enhancement, using special camera rigging and special companion computer software. It morphs their appearance, takes out wrinkles, tighten skin, brightens eyes, all subtle things that can make them look younger – but acting younger is still up to the actor.

Marty directed Pacino a few times simply saying – “remember you’re 42, get out of the chair like you’re 42.” ILM was able to keep the motions of the actor, while enhancing their appearance to make them age appropriate.

So those are the two biggest movies out right now with the biggest gambles on the newest filmmaking technologies.  These techniques could change Hollywood forever, or just fall to the wayside, depending on how we react to them. Both movies will be out at the same time, so the choice is ours. It’s kind of like VHS or BETA all over again isn’t it? Funny how times change yet stay the same. 


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