“Yet repurposing remains possible in spite of these limits because there is often a significant untapped reservoir of potentials lying dormant within a technology. The difficult point to understand is that, in the words of one historian, ‘Technology is neither good nor bad; nor is it neutral.’ Any given technology is political but flexible, as it always exists in excess of the purposes for which it may have been designed.”
—Nick Srnicek and Alex Williams, Inventing the Future: Postcapitalism and a World Without Work (2015)
An interrogation of de-aging, or computer-generated imagery that alters the age (or its appearance) of an actor, should start with the fact that the technology modifies the physical body. The term “de-aging” is perhaps most similar to “anti-aging,” which is to say that each hinges upon an impulse to remove or undo its traces. (For instance, in the recently released video game Death Stranding, by game auteur Hideo Kojima, players must flee a poisonous rainfall that ages everything it touches, and thereby brings humanity closer to the realm of the dead.) The discomfort projected upon aging is challenged by the comfort with which wrinkles can be easily smoothened or hardened and hairs darkened or greyed. Getting older, and all of its assumed hard-earned virtues, becomes as artificial as most spells of movie magic, like adding a neutral density filter to the lens so that daylight may turn to night.
Within the film industry, de-aging is one sector of what the movie industry refers to as “beauty work.” Vulture describes beauty work as “plastic surgery with a mouse click,” a procedure that alters the bodies of stars piece by piece, part by part, like characters in The Sims. For visual effects studios that offer beauty work, de-aging is part of the package: one such studio, popular for its services, is Lola Visual Effects (Lola VFX), which de-aged Samuel L. Jackson in Anna Bowen and Ryan Fleck’s Captain Marvel (2019), which takes place in the 1990s. Beauty work can also be organized into four categories: the unnoticeable (smoothing skin texture) or noticeable (color, shape, or size), that which is wholly cosmetic (raising the bridge of a nose) or is formal, in so far as the retouching directly involves the mechanics of the structure or narrative (using a digital double for stunts). What makes de-aging so ripe for the reaping is that it links the image of the human body to time, beyond the flesh and bone of itself or how these may link to the finite standards of today.
The call for bodily authenticity overlooks how cinema has always depersonalized the body via advancements in artificialization. These, like the soft focus of a light shone through gauze as in the work of cinematographer James Wong Howe in the 1920s, were once only practical effects and not digital. But with this canvas of pixels, the best examples of digital de-aging have made ample use of the technology’s potential for reflexivity. Like a slab of clay or paint on a canvas, de-aging asserts the human body’s limitations and that we must not be confined or limited to the bodies in which we appear, and from there considers the alternatives beyond what is thought of natural. Nearly a decade ago in 2008, David Fincher aged, and then de-aged, Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, about a man who becomes younger as everyone, including his true love Daisy (Cate Blanchett), nears death. When Button declares, “Our lives are defined by opportunities; even the ones we miss," he upholds the importance of living by decisions, an active intervention that demands an interactivity with others (these, unlike the aging body, remain and reverberate even after death). Button is a composite borne of the artistic choices of many, Pitt’s face transposed onto the frail frame of an elderly man via motion-capture and the use of a separate body actor.
This decade ends with three major displays of de-aging: the aforementioned Captain Marvel, Ang Lee's Gemini Man, and Martin Scorsese's The Irishman. The variance between the three—one, a superhero origin story that functions as an expansion of an existing franchise and the Marvel establishment; another, a thriller based on a resuscitated screenplay from the 1990s, filmed in 3D and 120 frames per second; and a Netflix-funded film, ten years in the making, about the symbiosis of American labor unions and organized crime in the late twentieth century—distinguishes them from one another. And only one of those films belongs to a billion-dollar franchise and was met with box office success, so you need not worry about a snowball effect wherein we are all suddenly inundated with holograms and copies, despite whatever attempt to create a computer-generated likeness of James Dean. (We already encounter these augmented figures in our movies on a regular basis, but we can barely tell.) The commonality is far more interesting, that each film cuts at the notion of self-possession.
Like the mother of Abbas Kiarostami's Ten (2002) tells her child, "No one belongs to anyone. Not even you." A new stage of human self-consciousness arises when the assumption of a given nature is abandoned for a constructed artificiality. De-aging in the "Marvel cinematic universe" began as early as 2011, when Lola VFX slimmed down a muscular Chris Evans in Joe Johnston's Captain America: The First Avenger. Superheroes indulge a fantasy of infallibility—moral and ethical flaws in Marvel films include being cranky or sometimes hard to talk to, or, bizarrely enough,"being fat," and are as inconsequential to the odds of saving the day as a pimple, which no one really has here. Within this context, de-aging becomes another engine for an empire of memories as merchandise. In Ang Lee's Gemini Man, which Lee boasts of featuring a totally "digital human," Will Smith's Henry Brogan is an assassin who discovers that the government has cloned his younger self into an army of super-soldiers. Junior, one such clone, is sent out to assassinate the older Smith.
The film, when seen in Lee's intended presentation of the film in 120 fps, overflows with unabashed uncanniness. Resembling an Andrew Wyeth painting, the film merges flatness with crisp definition—its sunset, fields of grass, and oceans are better than the real thing. These flourishes expose the stiffness of the film's other moving parts: stilted exchanges between Henry and another agent, Dani (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), gestures at companionship with neither flirtation nor fondness; hot topics like the military industrial complex's exploitation of young black men are roughly dropped rather than integrated throughout. The emotional tenor only strikes a nerve when Henry is face-to-face with Junior, with whom he shares more chemistry than any other person on-screen. Because Gemini Man depicts fights between the characters, visual effects house Weta merged both motion-captured shots of Will Smith and a digital double created from references of Smith in his twenties.
Like Brad Pitt’s Benjamin Button, Junior is not a modified actor but a recreated one, but Gemini Man never indicates any irony behind the notion that he is a human nonetheless, more truthful in action and intent than the entities that created him. By its end, what was marketed as a “real” and old Will Smith fighting his computer-generated clone becomes a thoughtful contemplation of the latter’s humanity. Through his interactions with his original, Junior comes to understand that though they may share the same “moves,” he and Henry are not the same: In its final scene, Junior kindly rejects Henry’s college advice, insisting that he can make and learn from his own mistakes. After watching the film, Isiah Medina reminded me of Kiarostami again, this time regarding Certified Copy: “Without the existence of copies, we wouldn’t understand originals. [...] Access to the original is out of reach for so many of us. Therefore, we should value and appreciate a copy.” Eyes perpetually brimming with CG tears, Junior (collectively created by the CGI artists, Smith, and Lee) demonstrates what Hegel defines in his Introductory Lectures on Aesthetics as artistic beauty, which is "higher than nature. For the beauty of art is the beauty that is born [...] of the mind; and by as much as the mind and its products are higher than nature and its appearances, by so much the beauty of art is higher than the beauty of nature." That the “digital human” gives the best performance of Gemini Man should not be thought of as a cruel or dystopian irony because, again, it only continues what cinema has always done.
The screening of Martin Scorsese's The Irishman (the Netflix-produced picture that de-ages Robert De Niro, Al Pacino, Joe Pesci, and Harvey Keitel) that I attended was filled with an older audience, including many from the same age demographic as the actors themselves. Based on the narrative non-fiction book I Heard You Paint Houses by Charles Brandt, the film follows its leads—the truck driver-turned-hitman Frank Sheeran (De Niro), torn between alliances to mob boss Russell Angelino (Pesci) and International Brotherhood of Teamsters president Jimmy Hoffa (Pacino)—through the 1950s to the late 90s. Initial meetings and schemes escalate into territorial beef, then subside into the loneliness of a mobster life with more enemies of enemies than true friends. On a large screen and not a living room television, the de-aging of The Irishman (which will barely play in theaters at all) has attracted some mockery from those searching for De Niro's Sam Rothstein (Casino) in the pixels. The paradox lies in the long pattern of celebrating those who render themselves unrecognizable through the extremes of "method acting," whether through drastic weight loss or enduring over 200 hours of makeup application or wearing prosthetic teeth. (How de-aging technologies can be used to minimize the labor demanded of both cast—who are motion-captured, duplicated, and must also transact the rights of their likeness—and crew—engineers and artists who devote long hours into developing unprecedented technologies—is a concern that will only become more pressing as the device is further explored.)
The faces of The Irishman act as masks upon the faces of De Niro, Pacino, Pesci, and Keitel, icons of twentieth century America who—within the film’s narrative and beyond—become legends and ghosts of the twenty-first. Questioning the CGI of the film plays into the effectiveness of the film's craftwork, since to search for the truest version of a young or old actor's face in the film warrants a confrontation with Scorsese's sober-minded argument that getting old is a false metric for determining human change or growth. In other words, age and maturity are mutually exclusive. A shy man too firmly planted in his errand boy job to think about death, Frank Sheeran conceals his immaturity beneath the loudness of gunshots. He towers over Buffalino and Hoffa, but his feeble will crumbles beneath their charisma and magisterial favors, which muddles Sheeran's judgment of whether these are, in the simplest of terms, good or bad friends. (The stringing together of this triptych makes The Irishman one of the best films about how to navigate personal boundaries when not everyone you like gets along, and when relational maintenance and care becomes entwined with labor.) Before he can figure out or even articulate these words aloud, and then determine where his friends end and he begins, Buffalino and Hoffa are gone forever. Frank Sheeran is left with nothing but a laundry list of sins that he doesn't feel sorry for. Beneath the visage of the grinning grandpa lies a child.
Ars longa, vita brevis—art is long and life is short. The positive comments regarding de-aging have largely focused on the fact that they help older actors get more jobs. It is crucial that we move away from employment as an epicenter, because it not only crudely suggests that older actors are better off de-aged (and that the issue is their bodies rather than an industry-wide plague of ageism that does not hire these people, since The Irishman already proves that old age is not what prevents great actors from acting) but also that these actors want hard work, and not the higher reward of creating a beautiful work of art. The argument operates best when paired with the imperative to improve labor conditions, rather than create new types of labor: The Irishman uses de-aged digital doubles, and not only motion capture, and was only shot over 108 days, freeing its seniors from physically intensive movement over extended periods of time.
The imagination with which we regard the technology must be expanded. Here, some other possibilities for de-aging in the coming decade:
1. As stated before, we frequently associate acting or actors with drastic physical transformations. These both cause severe harm for the actor’s mental and physical health (Oscar contender Joaquin Phoenix states that his Joker role may have led to the development of a “disorder”), and also construct a dangerous precedent for the craft, in which mastery and artistic development become increasingly conflated with bodily suffering as a type of manual labor. In an article for The Atlantic following the release of Suicide Squad (a film overshadowed by Jared Leto’s publicity stunts), Angelica Jade Bastién writes that “method acting has also become wrapped up in a brand of identity politics that tries to make the art form resemble more traditional forms of male labor.” De-aging and other CG imagery, and the increasing ease with which they may be applied, can prove useful as intervening instruments that disincentivize this behavior and renew the actor’s dedication to doing more than what the body can offer.
2. It would be remiss to discuss a software that alters the age of an actor and not mention that the film industry already goes to great lengths to conceal signs of aging in women, or remove any sign that older women exist at all. In the aforementioned piece, Bastién also writes, “Women have certainly undergone radical physical or cosmetic changes for roles. But when people praise actresses, [...] the focus is less on their talent and dedication and more on how brave they are for deciding not to be beautiful.” Jennifer Lawrence in David O. Russell's Joy, for instance, plays a woman in her 40s, though she herself is in her early 30s and remains as young for the entirety of the picture. The three films that popularized this year's "de-aging debate" apply the technology to men both young and old. Works of art that explicitly use de-aging as a means to toy with the fraught relationship between women and aging might prove especially fruitful for both young and older actors. Lorene Scafaria's Hustlers, which follows a group of strippers in the early 2000s, places the labor of maintaining a constant look of glamor and luxury for wealthy customers against the backdrop of a continually changing landscape of beauty standards (never has the rise and fall of the Juicy Couture velour tracksuit been so devastating). One wonders what the film might have looked like if expanded over two more decades.
3. One persistently recurring concern raised regarding live-action children's media (film and television) is the casting of actors in their twenties, such as the 23-year-old Noah Centineo in Susan Johnson's To All The Boys I've Loved Before or the 26-year-old Beanie Feldstein in Olivia Wilde's Booksmart, as characters who are minors. Though this is partly done to avoid the limitations of working with children (including having a legal guardian on set and working around school hours, as well as other compliances with child labor laws), the physical appearance of the actors can at times be overwhelming for viewers still developing a comprehension of "movie magic" and other habits of media literacy. "A person in their 20s is more likely to have a consistent appearance, whereas an adolescent may change more frequently," writes Vanessa Golembewski for Teen Vogue. "But when teen idols on screen don’t share in that anguish, it can make the teen viewer vulnerable to feeling self-conscious and depressed about it." Could the bodies of these actors be modified to better mirror the target audience, or would the nearness to the awkward and transitional days of puberty only steer teenagers further away from the fiction of airbrushed beauty?