During a live online broadcast a couple of months ago, the Chinese video blogger known as Your Highness Qiao Biluo noticed her viewer count suddenly plummet.
Admirers on the YouTube-like streaming platform Douyu had previously been nothing if not ardent. In a little over 30 days, she had built a six-figure following of mostly male fans, who seemed to be hooked on her soothing voice and delicate, girlish features. A leaderboard kept track of financial gifts from her fondest admirers, one of whom had sent Qiao more than £11,000 ($21,900) since her vlogging career began in mid-June. (This is common practice — people often tip performers to highlight their comments.)
But this cash flow was about to dry up. Qiao had been broadcasting all along with the aid of a beauty camera: an application popular in China that uses artificial intelligence algorithms to lighten skin, darken hair, pinken lips, widen eyes, and otherwise align users' faces more closely with the country's traditional feminine ideal. And it had just malfunctioned mid-broadcast, unmasking the petite young online idol as a fairly heavy-set 58-year-old woman. Hence the sudden mass exodus of viewers, ever since which Qiao's Douyu profile has lain dormant. The £11,000 donor has quietly deleted his account.
The story of Qiao Biluo is a very modern cautionary tale, and also just the latest example of the growing prevalence and seamlessness of digital de-ageing techniques. Ten years ago, the technology was almost unheard of, but three films released so far in 2019 have featured actors whose mileage has been artificially wound back. The 1995-set Captain Marvel convincingly took Samuel L. Jackson back from 70 to his mid-forties. Perhaps less persuasively, It Chapter Two undid its younger actors' teenage growth spurts since the filming of the previous instalment. And Avengers: Endgame had about 200 shots individually age-adjusted, thanks to its time-travelling plot.
But it is arguably two still to come that will give the technology its toughest workout yet. Next month Ang Lee's action thriller Gemini Man will pit 50-year-old Will Smith against his 23-year-old clone. And in November, Robert De Niro, 76, and Al Pacino, 79, appear as dramatically younger versions of themselves — aged 30 and 39 respectively — in Martin Scorsese's generation-spanning Mafia epic The Irishman. The mission, in short, is to show us the stars of Mean Streets, Cruising and The Fresh Prince of Bel Air at exactly the ages they were when they made those iconic films and shows. Duping lovelorn strangers on a webcam show is one thing. It's quite another to literally rejuvenate some of the most familiar actors alive in a way that stands up to scrutiny in Imax.
Both films take very different approaches. For Gemini Man, visual effects house Weta Digital created a virtual 3D version of the younger Smith, who was brought to life in turn by the older Smith via performance capture — the same technology used to graft Andy Serkis' movement and emotions on to Gollum in The Lord of the Rings films. In The Irishman, the process was closer to virtual cosmetic surgery. De Niro and Pacino were on camera, in person, for every shot, before their appearances were nipped and tucked by Industrial Light & Magic, another leading effects studio known in the business as ILM since its Star Wars days.
The costly and time-consuming nature of the second technique pushed up The Irishman's original US$125 million ($200m) budget by more than a third after filming ended in March last year. But, as recently as May, the director still sounded unsure if the final effect would convince.
"Certain shots need more work on the eyes," he told the English director Joanna Hogg on an episode of the A Bigger Canvas podcast. As any psychologist could tell you, eyes give off a constant stream of tiny, subtle emotional cues — what we think of as their sparkle. It's very hard for visual effects artists to recreate. When they fail, characters can stumble into a state of not-quite-lifelikeness we find instinctively unnerving.
Watched today, there is something a little zombie-like about the first ever use of digital de-ageing on film, which came in the opening scene of the 2006 comic-book blockbuster X-Men: The Last Stand, starring Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen. But at the time, it was a huge breakthrough. Computers were on the verge of making something possible that could only have been previously suggested by recasting the role, or with facial prosthetics, or achieved via clever use of archive footage.
Interviewed in Ian Failes' Masters of FX, visual effects supervisor Edson Williams recalls initial attempts "made [Stewart and McKellen] look like they had bad plastic surgery. We had to rethink the process, break it down into individual steps like a surgeon would — digital derma-abrasion, nose jobs and finally a facelift using deformation tools."
Williams' visual effects house, Lola, went on to become a big name in the booming field of invisible effects, which covers both de-ageing and the more clandestine "beauty work", which smooths actors' skin tones, perfects their make-up, enhances muscles and contours silhouettes.
By the time Lola started work on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, its techniques had been refined. David Fincher's 2008 historical drama starred Brad Pitt as a foundling who ages in reverse. In later sequences, Pitt had to move like his hunky Thelma and Louise-era former self had done — just as on the set of The Irishman, Scorsese employed a posture coach to help De Niro and Pacino carry themselves like men almost half their age.
While making Gemini Man, Ang Lee discovered a crucial difference between the Will Smiths of 1989 and 2019. "The biggest problem is Will is a much better actor today than he was 30 years ago," he said.
However advanced the digital trickery becomes, it's somehow reassuring to know human talent — or lack of it — will always have a part to play.