The Issue with De-Aging in Film
There's a new Netflix film out, The Adam Project, starring Ryan Reynolds and Mark Ruffalo. For the most part it's perfectly serviceable science fiction adventure in the mould of the 80s Spielberg-Amblin films. But one point everyone can agree on is the ropey rendering of a de-aged Catherine Keener within the narrative. The young version of Keener's villainous Sorian is marked by particularly poor de-aging technology that renders her neck far too long, her face too smooth and at times looking as though she's Meryl Streep in Death Becomes Her.
Like many people in Hollywood, Keener has visibly aged, and the fact that she's been in the industry for nearly forty years is no small feat for a woman. That Keener has kept a naturalistic look is also notable considering Hollywood is extremely fickle on the subject of women getting older. The issue arises when the CGI rendering of her younger appearance arrives as if there is no reference point. The age gulf between Keener's present age and the de-aged version is supposed to be thirty four years. If Keener is playing her actual age, then 2050 Sorian is 62 and the 2018 version is meant to be around 28 – for context Keener was 28 in 1988, the year she made Survival Quest. The CGI Keener bares as little resemblance to what '88 Keener looked like as a different actress with prosthetics would.
For years there were two industry standard ways of making an older actor appear younger for a film. Cast someone who looks like them – examples of this can be seen in Guillermo del Toro's Hellboy. In the prologue, John Hurt's Trevor “Broom” Bruttenholm is played by Kevin Trainor in hair and make-up to resemble what John Hurt will look like for the remainder of the film. Equally convincing is the uncanny casting of Christa Allen and Alexandra Kyle as the younger version of Jennifer Garner and Judy Greer in 13 Going on 30. Look at Christa Allen's instagram and you can see she still looks like a younger version of Garner.
The other option was a very simple one – hair. Much of Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins deals with flashbacks – naturally, it's a Christopher Nolan film. The extended scenes depicting a young Bruce Wayne, his trauma at seeing his parents murdered and his fateful decision to leave Gotham is marked by the simple choice to have characters we will see later on in the film with slightly longer hair. Christian Bale's slick black hair is a messy mop of brown hair for these scenes, Katie Holmes has a fringe, Rutger Hauer's hair is slightly longer, Morgan Freeman's is slightly less grey, Michael Caine's is kept a little tidier. It's a simple way to show the passage of time and to illustrate what is a flashback and what is the present day.
Ironically the last example of this can be seen clearly in Rian Johnson's Looper. For the most part, the young Joe is played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt in heavy make-up and the old Joe by Bruce Willis looking like Bruce Willis. In the period showing the time between young Joe and the current old Joe coming back in time we see Willis adopt longer hair and a chin piece to look more like a bridge between Gordon-Levitt and himself. Many people have commented that much like Keener, Willis has been in the industry for a considerable amount of time, so we know how the actor looked as a younger man. The make-up used doesn't actually bring Gordon-Levitt any closer to looking like an early-thirties Bruce Willis.
The first major use of de-aging technology was for the prologue of 2006's X-Men: The Last Stand. In the prologue set in 1986, Patrick Stewart's Xavier and Ian McKellen's Magneto meet a young Jean Grey at her childhood home. The decision was made by director Brett Ratner to use CGI to reduce the ageing on both actors. The issue is that Stewart, more so than McKellen, was already in a high profile position in 1986 since it was the year Star Trek: The Next Generation began. In the interim twenty years Stewart has actually aged very little. The complex VFX used in the opening sequence remove any facial lines that make up even the youngest person. Both men are rendered smooth when in reality Stewart in 1986 looked much like he did in 2006 just with a few less lines on his forehead and a little more hair. The same is true of McKellen, who, while noticeably more wrinkled, was still somewhat similar in looks but with darker hair.
The effect the film is going for could have easily been achieved by simply putting a little foundation on both men, perhaps hiding their necks and adding colour to their hair, or a hair piece. Instead, the result is that both men appear to have been airbrushed to the point of looking inhuman, falling into the uncanny valley. Admittedly, this is just a prologue scene, and is easily forgotten by the time the film's epic runtime reaches it's conclusion, and the same technology used briefly on Stewart in 2009's X-Men Origins: Wolverine is a passing cameo that can be ignored (along with much of the rest of the film, frankly).
The technology was, however, used again in Disney's Tron: Legacy in 2010. The follow-up to the 1982 film sees original star Jeff Bridges trapped in a computer world and hunted by his program clone Clu. For the parts where Bridges plays the human Kevin Flynn, he appears as he did in 2010, long white hair and thick beard, a look Bridges has cultivated for some time. However, the character of Clu is supposed to look the same as when Flynn entered the computer world in 1982. For this complex de-ageing, visual effects were used to bring 1982 Bridges back. There is a wealth of footage of Bridges from the era as even back then he was a very popular film actor.
For the most part the rendering of Clu is effective and one could argue his not-quite-human status could be put down to the fact that he is a computer program but it falls down when it comes to his mouth. Much has been made about performance capture and de-ageing not being able to render eyes or mouths properly, resulting in actual eyes being captured. For the most part Clu works but only in the context of being a computer simulation as opposed to an actual young Bridges.
Perhaps the biggest proponent of de-ageing actors in Marvel Studios. The studio has moved with the times, and has embraced everything the ever-evolving world of CGI can offer, many of their more impressive aliens and monsters have been created with performance capture – Hulk and Thanos most notably, and their films use CGI to render things that might otherwise be hard to keep continuity on. There is, however, some flip-flopping on their method of telling a story that goes all the way from World War II to five years from now.
Marvel's ability to secure some of the biggest movie stars in the world is one of its draws, but in telling these time traversing stories we also face an issue – cast a younger version of an actor or de-age them? For most of the phase one films traditional methods were used. Odin's flashbacks in Thor see Hopkins donning a shorter wig and beard with lighter colour to show the passage of time until his present day grey locks, while Iron Man 2 and Captain America: The First Avenger opted to cast two different actors as Howard Stark – John Slattery and Dominic Cooper.
Even phase two flirted with both methods. Besides slightly different hairstyles, flashbacks to 2000 in Iron Man 3 do nothing to de-age Robert Downey Jr, Jon Favreau, Rebecca Hall or Guy Pearce despite the thirteen year gap between the opening scene and the present story. Similarly, flashbacks to Scarlett Johansson's Black Widow training in Avengers: Age of Ultron simply show her without make-up and her hair tied into a ponytail.
It's from Ant-Man onwards that the use of de-ageing has become more present. Michael Douglas is introduced in the first Ant-Man film in a scene taking place in 1989, offering us a look at a Wall Street-era Douglas, while Slattery and Peggy Carter actress Hayley Atwell are aged up with make-up. Douglas would be de-aged further in both Ant-Man and the Wasp and Avengers: Endgame attempting to emulate how he looked during his time on the 70s TV series Streets of San Francisco.
Most of the time Marvel has opted to use the de-ageing technology for one scene here and there – the prologue of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 gives us 80s Kurt Russell, while Captain America: Civil War shows a 90s Robert Downey Jr, and they work for the most part because they aren't beholden to the plot. It wasn't until Captain Marvel that the studio opted to put a character we know from the present day in a past setting for an entire film. In the film, Carol Danvers teams up with Nick Fury played by Samuel L. Jackson – the luck with this is that while Jackson is an iconic actor who reached his fame in the 90s, the man has aged about ten years in the space of thirty and so rendering him a younger man is a much less troublesome prospect for the length of a film.
It's true that de-ageing is often used as a gimmick for a scene, offering a flashback for storytelling purposes. It's often a little obvious – Aquaman's de-aged Nicole Kidman and Willem Dafoe fall into uncanny territory but are only seen in fleeting moments in the beginning. Even a de-aged Johnny Depp in the most recent Pirates of the Caribbean couldn't quite take away from the rest of the film.
But in 2019 the de-aging technology was really pushed to its limit. Not only was this the year Captain Marvel was released, but two other films put a de-aged actor front and centre. First, Ang Lee's science fiction action film Gemini Man saw over-the-hill Will Smith face off against Fresh Prince-era Will Smith. This mostly works because despite Will Smith pushing into his late fifties, the actor has stayed in pretty good shape these past few years and can still move like a younger man.
On the other hand, Martin Scorsese's crime epic The Irishman employed what the director called “youthification” on Robert De Niro, Joe Pesci and Al Pacino to tell the story of Frank “The Irishman” Sheehan from his teenage years until his old age in a retirement home. De Niro plays Sheehan for all of this, showing us his time in the trenches of World War II, his time in the Buffalino crime family, his friendship with Jimmy Hoffa, and, finally, at death's door. The computer work is okay, despite the fact that the de-aged De Niro doesn't actually look like him at a younger age. Scenes in which he should look like Taxi Driver-era De Niro simply don't resemble the actor as he was at that time. It's ironic somewhat that given how well De Niro has aged, old age make-up is used to make him look 83 when he was only 76 when making the film. The issue with all three actors is that even when seen at younger ages – De Niro in particular when playing a man in his thirties – they move like men in their 70s. De Niro might have enough CGI to at least mask his wrinkles, but there's no hiding the telltale physicality of a man in the late stages of his life.
And this is the major issue with de-ageing. The motion-dots on the face allow the effects people to reduce ageing on that face, often rendering them completely smooth and almost plastic looking, however, the reality is that most actors don't look like a smoother version of themselves at a young age. Pasting youth on a time-weathered face won't actually work. De Niro and Pacino have born the brunt of method acting, neither look terrible but look noticeably different than they did. The Robert De Niro and Al Pacino of The Godfather Part II look like completely different people to those seen doing the rounds for The Irishman's press.
It's an issue the Star Wars universe keeps facing also. The series' pivot towards excessive nostalgia has created a disjunction. After all, the upcoming Obi-Wan Kenobi series still sees Ewan McGregor playing the role but by this point, the character is only ten or so years away from the white haired Alec Guinness of the original trilogy. Meanwhile, in a show like The Mandalorian or a film like The Rise of Skywalker we are shown Mark Hamill's Luke around the time of Return of the Jedi, easy enough to imagine with the film readily available for reference, and yet using Hamill now as a template of Hamill then is pointless. Hamill has visibly aged, looking and sounding nothing like he did in the 80s – a point further confused by the fact that Sebastian Stan is a dead ringer for a young Hamill and already on the Disney payroll…
While technology is ever evolving and will can only become more seamless, the problem is that the films themselves are going to age like milk. Even eighteen years later, Stewart's de-aged face as a young Xavier is garish and stands out among a film with otherwise respectable CGI. Even de-aged Michael Douglas from 2015 is rapidly becoming unwatchable because of how ropey the effects are.
What stands out is that both Marvel and Scorsese have previously dealt with long time-frames in films much more effectively. Black Widow uses old-fashioned techniques such as adding or subtracting facial hair, lightening or darkening hair and making it longer or shorter. Rachel Weisz, David Harbour and Ray Winstone are all shown in the 90s set prologue and in 2016, showing a twenty year gap between the two. Similarly, Scorsese's gangster epic Goodfellas charts decades of criminal activity, the ageing of De Niro's Jimmy Conway is shown by his hair changing and the size of his glasses. He gets a pair halfway through to show he is past middle-aged, and by the end he has huge glasses and grey hair.
To circle back to The Adam Project, there may be a solution. Casting a younger actor and then using tried and tested make-up and movement coaching to age them up might be the way forward. Until the technology is seamless – and it probably never will be – casting someone for the role of Sorian as a 28-year-old and then going through the make-up process to make them look sixty might be easier. It might take more time on a practical level, but it might also be more cost effective. After all, taking Guy Pearce and slathering him in make-up in Prometheus is a cheaper option than going through hours of CGI rendering to de-age an older actor. It's a method that has been used for decades in beloved films like Back to the Future and The Exorcist.
As CGI gets more and more complex and sophisticated we can expect that more and more films will embrace it to tell stories. If a master filmmaker like Martin Scorsese and a studio as popular as Marvel are both opting for it to tell epic stories then it's clearly working in their eyes, however, there is something age-less about make-up and performance which offers a chance for a film to last much longer. Either that or we have to contend with rubber faced movie stars that pull us out of the film.