Martin Scorsese is one of the most renowned and respected filmmakers of all time. Most recently, however, he has come under fire for his rather unsparing opinion on Marvel films, labelling them as “not cinema”. To clarify, he then followed-up on this comment, stating “knowing what goes into them now, I admire what they do”. Originally, the issue with Marvel films was that they were, in Scorsese’s mind, like “theme parks”, as there is little emotion or psychological entanglement between the characters, which he thinks is what films should be centred around.

Yet one thing that cannot be denied is Marvel’s groundbreaking use of technology and the catalogue of stories which can now be told because of this technological advancement. Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) plays a massive part in every blockbuster film nowadays, and even the smaller productions rarely shy away from using it. Of course, Marvel didn’t invent CGI, nor was it the first to use it in ways to explore previously unattainable, unimaginable realms of cinema-making, such as the incredible world-building and mapping now achievable from behind a computer screen.

But there is one technical aspect that Marvel has arguably fronted: the digital de-aging phenomenon. Many may not realise, but the first time this technology was employed was back in 2006, in a Marvel film. X-Men: The Last Stand de-aged stars Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for flashback scenes, a relatively small segment in the film which in turn signalled a monumental turning point for Hollywood that no-one involved could have anticipated.

Since then, digital de-aging in film has become somewhat of a franchise staple for Marvel. It was used on Michael Douglas among others in the intro to Ant-Man to play younger iterations of their characters, and their most extensive use of the tech came in this year’s Captain Marvel, which stupendously de-aged Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury, as well as Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson, admittedly to more of a plastic-like effect.

And now, even the likes of Martin Scorsese is making use of the technology to the absolute brink of its ability. Indeed, his new release, The Irishman (coming to select theatres in the UK for a short period from 8 November, and available on Netflix from 27 November), displays some of the most meticulously detailed de-aging yet, as classic actors Robert De Niro, Al Pacino and Joe Pesci will be able to play their younger selves – not through makeup as it used to be done, but through the digital de-aging process – over the course of its whopping 207-minute narrative.

But de-aging is a significantly exhaustive process. There are two approaches that visual effects teams may choose to adopt for this process: 2D and 3D methods. The 2D approach entails using footage of the actor on set and comparing it with scenes of them in as their younger selves, with a plethora of samples in hair colour, skin colour, body shape, face shape and so on to cross-reference. The actor then must be isolated from every frame, then their face and body is replaced by mattes. VFX such as patching, digital print, cloning and blur is used for the desired effect to make the person look younger. Dots can also be used to allow the computer to do it for you, but this isn’t always a possibility. Captain Marvel is one of the most prominent uses of this technique, as Samuel L. Jackson was de-aged frame by frame to make him look spookily similar to himself in the 1990s.

The 3D approach is less used than the 2D method because of how time-consuming – and therefore expensive – it is. The visual effects team must digitally scan the actor, thus creating an ultra-realistic 3D model of their face and body. It supposedly makes integration into the scene easier as VFX is creating the character from scratch, but as the people who worked on de-aging Johnny Depp for a flashback scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge attested, it isn’t as desirable as the 2D approach.

One of the primary concerns with de-aging in contemporary film is the ethics behind the process. In essence, should we be concerned that some studios have started to bring actors back from the dead? This was seen first and foremost in Gareth Edwards’ Rogue One: A Star Wars Story where the visual effects team used the actor Guy Henry and digitally created the image of the late Peter Cushing over his face in order to include the character of Grand Moff Tarkin in the A New Hope prequel. In an interview with The New York Times, the visual effects supervisor for the film, John Knoll, stated that this de-aging process, and all others, are fundamentally “a super high-tech and labour intensive version of doing makeup.” In this regard, it’s similar to the process undergone to make Gary Oldman look so eerily like Winston Churchill in Darkest Hour, for example, or Rami Malek’s transformation into Freddie Mercury in the Queen biopic Bohemian Rhapsody. The ethics, in this case, may be quite defendable, but looking at the wider picture, there are those that disagree.

Many complained, and continue to do so, about Cushing’s supposedly lifeless or frighteningly dead eyes, an aspect which has proven a major problem for visual effects teams across the board when trying to make older actors resemble their younger selves. This may offend some by the use of a such a lifeless recreation tarnishing the image of the actor post-death, despite the best intentions of the visual effects team. 

What’s more, the rights and usage of an actor’s likeness belong exclusively to their estates – which is usually comprised of their family and lawyers. It used to be the case that estates only need be concerned about how the deceased’s movies or music would be used after their death, however, now that studios possess the full powers of necromancers, the authority of the estate’s right to the actor’s actual self remains a very tantalising ethical quandary, one which hopefully won’t spiral out of control.

It reaches further than cinema alone as well, as TV adverts have, on rare occasions, used the likeness of dead actors for their own measures. For example, the Audrey Hepburn estate allowed her likeness to be used in a Galaxy chocolate advert. According to AdAge, “the marketing, licensing and commercial use of dead celebrities is an estimated $3.0 billion business”, so the lucrative nature of this area indicates at a boundless future for de-aging deceased celebrities.

To be frank, this is a business that will not end soon; heck, it’s only just beginning to take off. So, while this recent phenomenon of de-aging actors won’t die soon, it means that there could be some iconic characters which we may never see leave our screen if the demand is there – which it most certainly is. But what are the individual benefits of such a method case-by-case? When is it going too far? And most critically, what happens if we start preferring to see the recreations of old or deceased actors over the genuine, new talent? Whilst this is an extremely unlikely possibility, it isn’t completely unfathomable in this day and age. Only time will tell.

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