Captain America’s Most Impressive Digital Effect Is Being Used to Beautify Hollywood – Vanity Fair

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The most jaw-dropping special effect in Marvel’s Captain America: Civil War had nothing to do with Spider-Man’s web-slinging prowess or Scarlet Witch’s reality-bending skills. No, it was the sight of a digitally de-aged Robert Downey Jr. playing a very young Tony Stark, in a touching scene early in the film.

The effect shouldn’t be all that surprising to Marvel devotees. It was the same trick Ant-Man used to bring us Michael Douglas as young Hank Pym. But even filmgoers who can’t tell Ant-Man from Iron Man might want to pay attention to this increasingly convincing technology. According to digital-effects experts, the same technique is being used on a more subtle level to enhance the natural beauty of Hollywood stars. And if this trend continues, we may be heading for an all-new definition of uncanny valley.

Lola VFX, the company who delivered a fairly believably young Pym and Stark, also worked on both aging and de-aging Brad Pitt for decade-spanning The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. According Benjamin Button VFX supervisor Eric Barba, that technique is increasingly being applied to further beautify already-gorgeous actors. “Creatives are finding more and more uses for it,” Barba told The Hollywood Reporter. “It allow actors to play earlier versions of themselves. The not-so-obvious examples are probably under confidentiality. There are certain stars that you are not allowed to talk about when that type of work is don —maybe slimming a little bit or cleaning up some imperfections.”

According to a recent cover story in New York Magazine, Lola VFX has everything from “digital dermabrasion, removing any age spots or imperfects,“ to reducing “eye bags,” to performing a “digital face-lift” to trim jowls and areas like earlobes and noses that grow larger with age in their bag of beauty tricks. Veteran visual-effects supervisor Jim Rider (Vinyl, Focus, Foxcatcher) told the magazine, “I’ve done beauty retouching on women who are practically supermodels, but because they’ve got an extra few ounces . . .”

Little tricks employed to boost beauty are as old as Hollywood itself. Think of this new digital frontier as the logical extension of soft-focus camera work or Vaseline on the lens. Paul Debevec, co-chair of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ SciTech Council compares it to the well-known habit of Photoshopping Hollywood’s most attractive stars. “It’s much more common than anyone realizes; this is the extension of what’s done for magazine covers.” And, as Debevec points out, as the technology becomes more affordable, its use will become more prevalent. “If it’s a major actor, you can do that for every frame of a film,” he claims.

But as the gap widens between what audiences see on the screen and what they see in the real world, the notion of Hollywood as a generator of fantasy is going to take on a new dimension. Debevec elaborates, “One of the worries is that actors are going to have this Dorian Gray problem because the image that we have of them in the films is going to diverge further and further from the way that they look in real life. So they are going to have more trouble on the talk shows and on the red carpet, until those too can be touched up in real time with a yet-to-be invented technology.”

David Foster Wallace predicted a more nightmarish version of this reality gap in the 1996 postmodern masterpiece Infinite Jest. And Hollywood itself is already a decade or more deep into grappling with how technology will effect the usefulness of actual humans on-screen. The implications reach far beyond a digital nip and tuck. As Debevec points out that filmmakers can “actually [re-create] a digital version of the person that is three-dimensional, animate-able and relight-able.” When a digital-effects team can raise actors like Laurence Olivier, Oliver Reed, and, more recently, Paul Walker from the dead, more actors may opt for provisions in their will like Robin Williams’s, which allows them to maintain posthumous control over their likeness.

But studios are taking preemptive action to digitally scan famous faces and gain control of the likeness of actors (some of whom might not be as established or forward-thinking as Robin Williams). Scott Squires, a digital-effects artist whose work ranges from Blade Runner to American Sniper told The Hollywood Reporter, “If there’s any inkling that you might need a scan, they scan the actor at the start of production. I’ve also heard of certain studios having actors scanned just as an archival thing.” Marvel—a studio that’s already 13 films in to an incredibly lucrative, interlocking cinematic universe—might be especially interested in having those famous faces on file in order to extend the franchise beyond expired contracts, retirement, and even, possibly, death.


Captain America’s Most Impressive Digital Effect Is Being Used to Beautify Hollywood – Vanity Fair