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

Mark Hamill rejuvenated in The Mandalorian (Lucasfilm)

Historically, if a filmmaker wanted to bring a character back to his prime decades later, he had three choices: cast a young look-alike, try to age the actor with clever makeup and prosthetics, or edit the footage frame-by-frame.

None of these solutions is perfect. A different actor will naturally always be absent, while makeup and prosthetics can never look so good. As for frame-by-frame editing: it’s a painstaking process that takes a lot of time. This is really only worth considering for the main characters, and even then it’s not something you’d want to do for extended scenes, given that most movies are at least 24 frames. for each second of sequence.

But recently AI has stepped in, as seen with young Luke Skywalker (pictured above) in The Mandalorian. The effect achieved through Lola VFX’s de-aging technology made 69-year-old Mark Hamill appear as moviegoers remembered him in 1979, although some weren’t fully sold.

But now Disney has demonstrated technology that looks like a huge leap forward, and it could alter the cast’s appearances in the coming years.

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

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

The images created are, as Disney calls it, “production ready”, and as the video above shows, they are extremely 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 color and cut replicated on his 70-year-old face – like that bit in The Simpsons, where Mr Burns pretends to be a high school student. Of course, it’s pretty easy to fix with a spell in the barber’s chair.

While this technology sounds great for immersion, allowing studios to quickly and easily age not just main characters for short cameos, but also partial-part readers for entire films, it raises some interesting questions about what we can trust the screen.

At the moment, cases of artificially rejuvenated characters are rare enough to attract attention. But what if it starts to be used as an integral part of Hollywood films, used to protect artists’ vanity rather than to make a story more believable?

While not as damaging as the use of deepfakes for disinformation campaigns, it is another example of how advanced technology could erode our faith in what is before our eyes.

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