Hollywood Films Making Actors Look Years Younger

    17 January 2020

    "The Irishman" is competing against eight other movies for one of the film industry's highest awards: the Oscar for best picture.

    When that award is announced in February, many people may pay close attention to the special effects teams that make it and similar films possible.

    Martin Scorsese directed the "The Irishman." It tells a story that extends over 30 years. One of the stars, Robert De Niro, is 76 years old in real life. But on camera, he and his co-stars play characters from their 30s into old age. It is something that made the film one of 2019's most celebrated movies.

    In the film industry, making actors look younger on camera is called "de-aging."

    A number of movies released last year have used new digital de-aging techniques to make stars look young. Samuel L. Jackson and Will Smith appeared in films that made them look like younger men.

    Some critics are calling 2019 an important year for de-aging effects in film.

    This image released by Disney-Marvel shows Samuel L. Jackson, right, with Brie Larson on the set of
    This image released by Disney-Marvel shows Samuel L. Jackson, right, with Brie Larson on the set of "Captain Marvel."

    The Irishman

    There are several methods using computers to make actors look younger than they are.

    In "The Irishman," the filmmakers avoided using tracking markers. Tracking markers are dots painted onto actors' faces that let computers mathematically reproduce facial movements.

    The young faces of De Niro and others in "The Irishman" are the work of Pablo Helman. He is a visual effects supervisor at a company called Industrial Light and Magic. In the past, Helman received Oscar nominations for his work on "Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones" and "War of the Worlds."

    He said the decision not to use tracking markers came directly from Scorsese and De Niro. Use of such markers require an actor to wear a headpiece with small cameras attached.

    Helman told The Associated Press that such equipment can interfere with an actor's thinking while they are working.

    "He's going to want to be in the moment with Joe Pesci and Al Pacino on set, with no markers on him. So, if you're going to capture the performance, how are you going to do that?"

    Instead, Scorsese used a "three-headed monster," a piece of equipment with three cameras on it. It has a director camera in the center and "witness" cameras on either side that take infrared pictures. The infrared cameras do not record shadows created from lighting on set. The shadows might interfere with the operations of the de-aging software.

    Gemini Man

    While the team at Industrial Light and Magic was working on "The Irishman," another group of technical experts was experimenting with de-aging at Weta Digital.

    The Weta team created a completely digital, 23-year-old version of Will Smith for the action movie "Gemini Man."

    "You have that many years of expertise of looking at a human face and knowing what's wrong," says Bill Westenhofer, one of the film's visual effects supervisors. He said trying to get all the different things to work well together can be difficult.

    The character Junior is the younger version of Will Smith's killer Henry Brogan in the film. To look like the younger character, Smith wore a gray tracksuit with two cameras attached to his head which captured his facial expressions through tracking markers.

    Where it starts

    Before filming started on both "Gemini Man" and "The Irishman," each visual effects team found old films of their acting stars.

    Helman and his team then spent two years looking through old movies to document how De Niro, Pacino and Pesci looked at different ages. They created a program similar to ones used to make "deepfake" videos. Such programs can make people in videos look like someone else.

    In the case of "Gemini Man," filming Junior required Smith to spend time in a special room where many cameras captured his facial expressions under different lighting conditions.

    Captain Marvel

    Scorsese has criticized movies made by Marvel Studios that used similar de-aging methods to "Gemini Man" as "not cinema." An example is the film "Captain Marvel" which also used tracking markers to make Samuel L. Jackson look much younger.

    Jackson's character is Nick Fury. The young Nick Fury was created by comparing images from old Jackson movies with his performance in "Captain Marvel."

    Jackson said he was lucky to have earlier films with enough facial expressions to do such a believable job in making his young Nick Fury.

    The de-aging effects were the work of a company called Lola Visual Effects.

    Weta Digital's Guy Williams said the de-aging of Jackson was well done. He added that "different approaches suit different requirements. It's not a one-size-fits-all kind of situation."

    Helman, who worked on "The Irishman," agrees. He believes that 2019 was a historic year for visual effects.

    "It's not by chance that we have several movies that have motion capture performance, facial performance, in three or four different ways," he said. "That shows that we're all thinking about digital humans."

    I'm Alice Bryant. And I'm Jill Robbins.

    The Associated Press reported this story. Alice Bryant adapted it for Learning English. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.


    Words in This Story

    dot – n. a very small round mark

    moment – n. a very short period of time

    infrared – adj. producing or using rays of light that cannot be seen and that are longer than rays that produce red light

    shadow – n. an area of darkness created when a source of light is blocked

    tracksuit – n. a special suit worn by actors to help capture a visual effect

    deepfake – n. videos in which one person's face is replaced by another's in order to trick viewers

    suit – v. to be proper or suitable for