Technology

Disney’s magic AI can change an actor’s age in seconds

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istorically, if a filmmaker wanted to bring back a character in their prime decades later, he or she had three choices: cast a young lookalike, try and de-age the actor with clever makeup and prosthetics, or edit the footage frame by frame.

None of these are perfect solutions. A different actor will naturally always be off, while makeup and prosthetics can never look that good. As for editing footage frame by frame: it’s a painstaking process that’s incredibly time-consuming. It’s only really worth considering for main characters and, even then, it’s not something you’d want to do for extended scenes, given most films contain at least 24 frames for every second of footage.

But recently, AI has stepped in, as seen with the young Luke Skywalker (pictured above) in The Mandalorian. The effect achieved via Lola VFX’s de-ageing technology made the 69-year-old Mark Hamill appear much as filmgoers remembered him in 1979, though some weren’t entirely sold.

But now Disney has demoed technology that looks like a huge stride forward, and it may be doctoring actors’ appearances in the next few years.

The system — FRAN (Face Re-Aging Network) — automates the frame-by-frame adjustments and reduces hours of painstaking and highly skilled labour to less than five seconds per frame.

To make FRAN, Disney generated thousands of faces aged between 18 and 85 using Nvidia’s portrait creation software, StyleGAN2. FRAN was trained on the portraits, learning the general differences between faces in their 20s and those in their 70s, and then applied to actors’ faces in motion, frame by frame.

The footage created is, as Disney calls it, “production ready”, and as the video above demonstrates, it’s hugely impressive, able to cope with different face angles in various lighting conditions. Although it’s slightly disconcerting to see a 20-year-old’s hair colour and cut replicated on their 70-year-old visage — like that bit in The Simpsons, where Mr Burns pretends to be a high-school student. Of course, that’s easy enough to fix with a spell in the hairdresser’s chair.

While this technology sounds great for immersion, making it quick and easy for studios not only to age main characters for short cameos, but bit-part players for entire movies, it does raise some interesting questions about what we can trust on screen.

For the time being, instances of characters being artificially made younger are rare enough that it’s flagged for attention. But what if it begins to be used as part-and-parcel of Hollywood movies, used to protect performers’ vanity rather than to make a story more believable?

While not as obviously damaging as the use of deepfakes for disinformation campaigns, it’s another example of how cutting-edge tech could erode our faith in what’s in front of our very eyes.

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