Making actors look older or younger is an eternal challenge for film studios. In the past, this was achieved by rather cumbersome and not always convincing prostheses and make-up effects. That was largely replaced by time-consuming digital VFX techniques, but it seems that Disney is coming up with a game changer.
While publicly available AI image generators are impacting the creative fields, Disney has been working on a studio-grade AI model that can age (and de-age) actors in a way that looks so realistic it’s scary (for more on the use of AI in other creative areas, see Using DALL-E 2).
Making actors look older or younger is nothing new. Makeup artists have done fantastic work including David Bowie in The Hunger (1983) and Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) – the latter had 56 people working in hair and makeup. More recently, VFX has improved the game and in Captain Marvel (2019) we saw Samuel L. Jackson age about 25 years.
Traditional VFX can take an enormous amount of time, with editors painting manually frame by frame. But Disney Research Studios has just revealed a solution it’s working on that seems to be able to achieve a realistic effect in real time. It describes its Face Re-Aging Network (FRAN) as a “practical, fully automatic and production-ready” tool that can automatically age and age faces.
The concept is not new. The tools use a neural network technique, similar to deepfake software, but until now the technology has been too unreliable for use in movies due to the loss of detail or some facial features when the subject moves. Disney’s model, according to the research report (opens in new tab)adapts to moving images with stunning accuracy, even when the subject is not looking at the camera.
To train FRAN, the research team collected thousands of AI-generated faces and studied how machine learning technology would handle them. Instead of taking new headshots, FRAN recognizes the areas of the face that are most likely to be affected by age, such as smile lines and wrinkles around the eyes. It layers these facial features over the subject’s face, creating a steady and hauntingly realistic effect that preserves the original facial features in different lighting conditions and from different angles.
The results are amazing, but also a little scary. Deepfakes still have a few telltale signs that often betray them, the most obvious being their weakness in showing a subject in profile. We’ll be watching to see how Disney uses the technology. The latest animated release, Strange World, has been a bit of a flop (many people blame Disney’s own lack of marketing, but on Disney+, Disenchanted has been going through a storm.