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How Hollywood is giving the greatest star digital facelifts

Johnny Depp is 53 years old, but he doesn’t look a day over 26 in the new ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ movie — at least for a few moments. There was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy make-up or archival footage used to bring the actor back to his boyish “Cry Baby” face, however. It’s all post-production visual effects, and after a decade of refining the process, since Brad Pitt ran the gamut of time in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, it is becoming commonplace in major Hollywood movies.

Depp is just the latest mega-star to get a dramatic anti-aging treatment on the screen, joining the ranks of Robert Downey Jr. (in “Captain America: Civil War”), Michael Douglas (“Ant-Man”), Kurt Russell (in the “Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2”), and the scores of others at the digital facelifts to play younger versions of themselves. In the old days, one lucky unknown lookalike (or look enough alike) would have scored the part of the young Jack Sparrow or Tony Stark. Now, if the movie is the budget, the stars have it both ways — and audiences-get a nostalgic flashback.

Lola Visual Effects is responsible for the Depp’s transformation, and most of the Marvel tricks, that are included make of Chris Evans scrawny for the original “Captain America,” and Hayley Atwell about 70 years older for the sequel.

Lola was the pioneer behind “Benjamin Button”, and sells their services to all the major studios. It is one of a handful of suppliers that have been in the so-called “beauty work” activity. It is often intended to go unnoticed (such as the removal of a stain), and is generally buried under mountains of the confidentiality of the agreements.

In the case of Depp, and most of Lola’s anti-aging work, the process begins with the capturing of a performance of the actor and then manipulate. This is not always necessary, “Rogue One” made of the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff tarkin without him, and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia with a double — but it was of crucial importance for the “Pirates.”

“No one else can be Jack Sparrow,” said Gary Brozenich, the Oscar-nominated VFX artist who oversaw the visual effects for the film. “Try to take a digital approach … the public would see right through it.”

Brozenich and the filmmakers decided to take Depp back to how he looked like in the time of “21 Jump Street” and “Cry Baby” and went through a number of iterations, in the course of six months, to arrive at the perfect age about 26) — in which Depp, Disney and Jerry Bruckheimer had to log out. The last shots, of which there are 20-25, it took around 15 artists a year of work.

That Depp is already known since that age was both a blessing and a curse for the production. They had plenty of clues to work with, but, so would the public.

“Working on the human face is one of the, if not the most challenging thing to do,” said Trent Claus, the visual effects supervisor for Lola VFX. “People can see when something is wrong. Even if they did not, the finger on what’s wrong, they can tell that something is wrong.”

And while the artists have gotten better over the years and have usually managed to avoid drifting into the dreaded uncanny valley — the term used to describe the creepy feeling that you get when watching a digital person that is almost lifelike, but not enough — there are still bottlenecks.

“One of the things that we struggle with the bottom of the chin. As you get older is usually a lot of sag and extra skin that develop under the jaw,” Claus said. “Unfortunately, it is not only a simple task of removing the wrinkles because the skin no longer reacts the same as when you were younger. You have to change not only the way it looks on the outside, but how it moves and reacts to the movements and expressions.”

To counter this, productions often shoot a younger, double-mimic, an actor of the performance, which is used as a reference for how the younger skin should behave and look in certain lighting.

“We are constantly fighting which makes it look lifelike. One of the advantages of the process that we use is by keeping the original actor, we have that starting point of life, of reality,” Claus said.

It makes the whole process more difficult, but, “it’s worth it.”

Responses, the last time have been mixed, ranging from nostalgic joy and “how would they do that” curiosity to astonishment and wariness about the future.

New York Magazine critic David Edelstein wrote that the “recreation” are “far more disturbing in their real-world consequences than the fictional destruction of the planets and galaxies.”

For the New York Times critic Manohla Dargis, Russell’s younger face was “weird” and “disturbing.”

“It makes you consider whether or not this Benjamin Button-style rejuvenating going to be a increasingly standard (and creepy) for the sector,” she wrote.

“Pirates 5” co-director Espen Sandberg, is not so dark.

“For me it is just another storytelling tool and I think it’s really cool,” he said.

And for the VFX artists, it is only the beginning.

“Now what we use it for a very nuts and bolts solution to a problem. There is a different and more creative future,” Brozenich said. “There may be crazier, more creative uses for it … maybe a hybrid of different actors.”

He thinks that the next step is a digital character that plays a greater role, and not just a flashback. After all, the young Han Solo movie is not with a de-aged Harrison Ford or Billy Dee Williams — they have cast Alden Ehrenreich and Donald Glover.

“We have digital characters that a first part of the (films), such as Rocket and Groot of ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ … But they are never a full human performer who plays an important role during the duration of a feature film,” he said. “I think that’s really the Holy Grail.”

 

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