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‘We’re going through a big revolution’: how AI is de-ageing stars on screen

Craggy, grey-haired and 80 years old, Harrison Ford might seem a bit old to don his brown Fedora-style hat or crack his whip as Indiana Jones. But a trailer for his upcoming film Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny offers a flashback to Indy in his swashbuckling glory days.

“That is my actual face at that age,” the actor explained on CBS’s The Late Show with Stephen Colbert. “They have this artificial intelligence (AI) programme. It can go through every foot of film that Lucasfilm owns because I did a bunch of movies for them and they have all this footage including film that wasn’t printed: stock. They could mine it from where the light is coming from, the expression. But that’s my actual face. Then I put little dots on my face and I say the words and they make it. It’s fantastic.”

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Having discovered the secret of eternal youth, Ford joked: “That’s what I see when I look in the mirror now.”

He is not the only actor to get a digital facelift with an assist from AI. Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and other cast members will play younger versions of themselves in Here, directed by Robert Zemeckis, thanks to a tool that the AI company Metaphysic says can create “high-resolution photorealistic faceswaps and de-ageing effects on top of actors’ performances live and in real time without the need for further compositing or VFX work”.

Metaphysic’s website proclaims: “We are world leaders in creating AI generated content that looks real” and suggests: “Use AI to create your own hyperreal avatar”. The company has just struck a deal with the Creative Artists Agency “to develop generative AI tools and services for talent”, according to the Hollywood Reporter.

Just as the buzzy AI chatbot ChatGPT threatens to upend journalism, speechwriting and school essays, so AI could turn digital de-ageing from something that requires many months of highly skilled artists to something that many people can do in their bedrooms. And as the technology becomes ever more sophisticated, there are fears that deepfake technology could fall into the wrong hands and be weaponised.

Olcun Tan, a German-born visual effects supervisor based in Los Angeles, reflects: “We’re going through a big revolution. This is like the invention of nuclear power. This is a big deal. It’s underestimated and overlooked. Currently, it feels like, ‘Oh, it’s a toy, it’s awesome, look what it can do,’ but this is just the start of a big change in our economic structure because it will do a lot more than normal humans can do.”

Will Smith in Gemini Man
Will Smith in Gemini Man. Photograph: Paramount Pictures/AP

De-ageing has met mixed results so far. Examples include Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Johnny Depp in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales, Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy, Robert Downey Jr in Captain America: Civil War, Michael Douglas in Ant Man, Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol 2, Will Smith in Gemini Man and Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill in various instalments of Star Wars.

One of the more impressive was Samuel L Jackson who, in 2019’s Captain Marvel, shed about 25 years and featured in the entire story rather than just a cameo. “The artists meticulously compared Jackson to how he looked in his mid-90s-era movies to see precisely how skin would hang off his face or how light would hit his cheeks,” according to the Wrap website.

Why bother? Better to have a de-aged Harrison Ford, some argue, than to have a different actor playing one of his indelible roles, as happened when he took on the young Han Solo in Solo: A Star Wars Story. Many fans found it a jarring experience.

Drexel Heard, a political activist who has worked in Hollywood, says: “We’re getting to the point where viewers want to see that same person where it’s not going to take them out of the moment. Because our brains automatically go, ‘Well, that’s not the same person. Who’s that actor? Will that actor be better than the actor that we are watching right now?’ Nobody wants to have to go through that as an audience member.”

Not everyone sees it that way, however. Tan, who uses an AI-assisted tool called Shapeshifter, says: “It’s time for the old farts to make space. It’s annoying. There’s no reason for somebody to be in his 80s and still look like in his 30s. There’s no point. What it does is create a culture of recycling.

“It’s like Mickey Mouse going on forever. You have a Mickey Mouse and it doesn’t need any water, it doesn’t need any food, it doesn’t need a contract. They can monetise it any way they want. It doesn’t need to sleep. It works 24 hours if they want in 10 copies or 30 copies simultaneously. What’s happening right now is these actors are becoming more that. They become like a brand.”

Tan adds: “In Harrison Ford’s case, the guy did of course Indiana Jones but there could be easily a new Indiana Jones introduced, a next generation. Why even recycle all that stuff constantly? Because it’s a sure thing for money making, obviously, but the question arises, what does it do to our society if you have always the same idols being recreated on the screen? It’s like we got stuck somehow in the past and we don’t want to look into the future.”

Martin Scorsese’s 2019 movie The Irishman knocked four decades off Al Pacino, then 79, and Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci, both 76, but fell into the “uncanny valley” trap of being distracting, eerie and not quite lifelike enough. If the test of visual effects is that you shouldn’t notice them, The Irishman failed. And for all the digital wizardry, the actors’ bodies betrayed the ravages of time.

Joe Pavlo, an Emmy award-winning visual effects artist based in London, says: “Marty should have come to me. I would have told him you can’t do that with Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci – they’re just too damn famous and everybody knows them. If you’re going to do it, do it with unknown actors and age them and get a young guy and age them.

“Bless his heart but Robert De Niro moves like a guy in his 70s. An old person doesn’t move like a young person. They don’t walk the same. Their mannerisms are not the same. There’s all kinds of problems but people will figure this out and it’s just going to be another tool for film-making. A tool for film-making can be used by someone very artistically and with great vision or it can be used hamfistedly as a novelty and a gimmick.

Building on Industrial Light and Magic’s de-ageing work in The Irishman, a fan rapidly created a deepfake version that was released on YouTube and widely praised as an improvement.

Pavlo, who uses AI tools to save time on boring and mundane tasks, adds: “The technology is just getting better and better. You can see stuff falling apart a little bit and not being perfect but, every time I dive into it again, I find that it’s improved exponentially since the last time I looked at it.”

Asked if he is worried about a Pandora’s Box of deepfakes being opened, Pavlo notes that AI software is also used to detect deepfakes with high accuracy. “AI technology is the disease and the cure.”

Tan, however, has misgivings. He says: “AI is in a sense cool and fun in the beginning but then you realise it’s actually dangerous. It can imitate people and make them do things on screen and then you can have a whole societal belief that those people are disgraced for whatever they did on screen and in reality it wasn’t even them. It’s just a ploy to wind people up.

“You see it in warfare, which I think Russia tried with Ukraine. There was this use that had the Ukrainian president saying they were giving up and soldiers should put their weapons down. That was done with AI. A simple tool which doesn’t look dangerous suddenly can be very dangerous because now you are affecting reality with it.”

It has the makings of an ethical quagmire and government regulators are struggling to catch up. One source in the visual effects industry, who did not wished to be named, writes in an email: “In the hands of well-meaning people, I don’t think it crosses an ethical line since we’ve been doing this manually with makeup or CG for decades already and it can be a really effective part of storytelling.

“However, the issue is when it becomes so accessible that it’s used by less scrupulous people and when society hasn’t caught up in terms of understanding how to deal with it. Where the skill required was a deterrent, now anyone can make people say or do what they want.”

The source adds: “You can see this already with the inception of deepfakes for celebrity pornography. The ability for the average person to realise if something is fake is always years behind the state of the art in technology, and it’s ripe for dissemination of misinformation. The last few years have shown how much fake news (often foreign state-sponsored efforts) affects society, even just as text.

“How will we cope when we can’t trust what we see or hear? How will we be able to trust that a celebrity didn’t say something heinous years ago versus it just being a poorly shot cellphone video? Or conversely, how would we hold people accountable when they can just pretend it’s all fake?”