A lion cub chases an insect across the golden African plain. A fixer for a crooked labor boss takes a phone call. An elite assassin faces off against a younger version of himself.
Despite the disparity of the aforementioned scenes, they all have one thing in common: They all use cutting edge visual effects technology. Although “The Lion King,” “The Irishman” and “Gemini Man” all utilize VFX for very different ends, they could cumulatively depict the future of filmmaking as the industry heads into a new decade.
All Hail the King
“The Lion King” has made over $1.5 billion since its release on July 9, making it the ninth highest-grossing movie ever. Like Disney’s other live-action remakes, some of the movie’s success comes down to the audience’s love of the original film. Still, another part of the appeal is seeing photo-realistic animals take their place in the circle of life.
There’s an uncanny feeling one gets watching “The Lion King.” It’s the first fully animated movie designed to not look like an animated movie. Most of the time, the effect is convincing. Someday, film historians may claim that it is just as revolutionary as Walt Disney’s first animated feature, “Snow White.”
That’s because it is the first movie to knowingly blur the line between reality and fantasy. If the actor’s worst nightmare is the film industry replacing flesh and blood humans with digital performers, “The Lion King” could be a harbinger for what’s to come.
Between his work establishing the Marvel Cinematic Universe on the first two “Iron Man” movies and directing Disney’s live-action adaptations of “The Jungle Book” and “The Lion King,” Jon Favreau is one of the most important filmmakers of the 21st century. Yet, in spite of the revolutionary technology used for “The Lion King,” Favreau sees it as an exercise in craftsmanship, echoing his origins as an indie filmmaker.
“Either you have an animator making choices or you have an actor making choices, but it is a human being; it is not a computer,” he told The Hollywood Reporter. “‘Lion King’ is the most handmade film I’ve ever done. There are thousands of hours of human attention being dedicated to every shot of that film.”
The novelty of the film means that Favreau would likely take more pride in a Visual Effects Oscar than one for Best Animated Film. That would be a final, fitting irony. After all, by trying to not look like an animated movie, “The Lion King” became the highest-grossing animated film ever released.
De-Age Against the Machine
Visual effect shots are commonplace in action, superhero and animated movies. But with his upcoming Netflix film “The Irishman,” Martin Scorsese is utilizing VFX for even more dramatic ends.
Working with an all-star cast that includes Al Pacino as Jimmy Hoffa alongside frequent collaborators Robert Deniro and Joe Pesci, “The Irishman” is a crime epic that’s right in Scorsese’s wheelhouse. However, the film’s multi-decade scope required sophisticated “de-aging” techniques for its principal stars, all of whom are in their 70s.
While the specific techniques have not yet been revealed, VFX powerhouse Industrial Light & Magic is doing the de-aging work on “The Irishman.” The process, which collaboratively uses makeup and more traditional effects, has become one of the biggest storytelling trends of 2019. Samuel L. Jackson was de-aged to look like a younger version of Nick Fury in “Captain Marvel.” The Hollywood Reporter claims that “Avengers: Endgame” used “roughly 200” de-aging shots in its time-traveling storyline.
However, using widespread visual effects to tell a realistic story is another matter. Based on the true-crime book “I Heard You Paint Houses,” “The Irishman” will utilize state-of-the-art VFX in a non-traditional sense. It’s not hard to imagine the implications of de-aging for biographically-minded filmmakers.
When it comes to balancing revolutionary visual effects with character-driven storytelling, Ang Lee may be the gold standard. In 2013, he took home a Best Director Academy Award for “Life of Pi.” That film used 3D and extensive CGI to tell an intimate, personal story about man and nature.
This fall, Lee returns to more action-oriented fare with “Gemini Man.” The film stars Will Smith as an assassin targeted by a younger version of himself. However, unlike the de-aging used for “The Irishman,” “Gemini Man” will attempt what’s long been the holy grail of visual effects: A convincing, fully digital human.
“The younger character is not me. That is a 100 percent digital character. A completely recreated character,” Will Smith recently told reporters. “They didn’t take my image and just stretch some of the lines. It is a completely CGI character in the same way that the lions in ‘The Lion King’ are CGI characters.”
The Next Frontier
In an era where Josh Brolin can give a surprisingly soulful CGI performance as the villainous Thanos, it’s counter-intuitive to think of digital Will Smith as the height of VFX. Yet, it’s much more challenging to render a human face than an alien one. According to “Gemini Man” VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer, that’s because “every single one of us are [face] experts and that’s evolved over millions of years.”
“The face is how we look at someone and tell that they’re lying to you or that there’s an illness and the subtleties of what tells you that are subconscious,” he said at a recent press event. “So, for us to go in and try to recreate that digitally is really hard and takes all the science, and the great performance as well, to really pull that off.”
Using motion capture (and a double), Smith performed as both the 50-year-old Henry and the 23-year-old Junior. Because Will Smith was already a celebrity at age 23, society’s familiarity with The Fresh Prince-era adds even more pressure to nail the digital character. Based on the movie’s trailers, it looks like the team succeeded.
The End of Acting?
Between the aforementioned films, it’s easy to see the horizon of a new era in Hollywood. Particularly one in which digital actors stand-in for their human counterparts on the regular. Advances in the tech behind so-called deep fake videos make that all the more likely.
Recent weeks have seen new deep fake videos featuring Ron Swanson as the cast of “Full House,” as well as the video above, in which Bill Hader imperceptibly turns into Tom Cruise during an old David Letterman interview. That clip, in particular, shows what machine learning can do to a video—both dazzle and deceive.
Those two words have always been relevant in film. They could take on even more significance in the coming decade. We already live in a world where Disney has made singing animals look realistic. It’s difficult to even imagine what comes next.