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Digital Facelifts: A History And Critique

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The art of digitally created characters has made some incredible leaps over the years. While some film fans still advocate for animatronics over CG, there’s no denying how impressive creations like Gollum, The Hulk and Caesar the ape are in modern films.We are now at a stage in which actors can have there performance adapted into an inhuman digital creation to great effect. However, there is one area of digital performances that remains out of reach; the human characters.

Like the motion-capture monsters mentioned above, digitally created human characters have seen their ups and downs. I would venture to say the trend began with Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and continued with Robert Zemeckis’ projects like The Polar Express and Beowulf. At the time I saw this evolution as a misstep as the characters’ faces seemed lifeless and barely a hint of the actor’s performance could shine through. Since then, the technology has improved as has the approach. Filmmaker’s were finding more success in the process, not by creating new CG humans but by recreating existing ones. The first real hint of this came with Tron: Legacy where an older Jeff Bridges faced off against his younger self. This still didn’t look right and the creepy, rubbery face seen next to real actors emphasized the flaws. But the seed was planted.

Recently there has been an uptick in these “digital facelifts” and the results have been more than impressive—they’ve been scary good. Interestingly, the studio that has had the most success with this technology has been Marvel. I was blown away by Haley Atwell’s old age make-up in Captain America: The Winter Solider, only to find that she was in fact digitally aged. It was very convincing. They became even bolder with Ant-Man when they actually opened the film with a de-aged Michael Douglas circa-1990s. And then, just this year they did it again by bringing Robert Downey Jr. back to his Less Than Zero days in Captain America: Civil War. There was still imperfections, but it was eerily realistic, and more importantly, the performance came through.

*******SPOILERS FOR ROGUE ONE BELOW*******

robert-downey-jr
via Marvel Studios

Now, this technology has entered into the cinematic conversation recently due to the release of Rogue One. In that film, the late actor Peter Cushing is digitally brought back to life to reprise his role of Grand Moff Tarkin from A New Hope. The sight of seeing a man who has been dead for over 20 years is startling because it does look just like him… at first. The trouble is that Tarkin actually plays a fairly big role in Rogue One and the more he shows up on screen the less convincing he is. It never becomes bad, but it is fairly distracting. And that’s ignoring the moral questions about forcing Cushing to give a performance he has no control over.

Just a few days ago, news broke that Martin Scorsese would be using this technique on his long-gestating film, The Irishman. Producer Gaston Pavlovich talked about the excitement of being able to feature a Godfather Part 2-era Robert De Niro in the film. However, using that particular movie as a reference raises questions about what this technology actually offers. If it were possible back then, would Godfather Part 2 have been improved were it a digitally de-aged Marlon Brando as young Vito Corleone instead of De Niro?

In reality, this technology, while impressive is just a gimmick. That’s why it works well in Captain America and is problematic in Rogue One. In one instance, it’s used as a wowing effect, while the other tries to pretend it’s normal. I don’t think anyone would argue that it augments an actor’s performance, in fact it’s quite the opposite in most cases. I for one, am more eager to see a good performance from De Niro than a reminder of what he once looked like. Hopefully, Scorsese will use the technology sparingly, or better yet, hire a younger actor and help discover the next De Niro.

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