ByElise Jost, writer at
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Elise Jost

In the first part of Captain America: Civil War, Tony Stark is giving a speech at his old college, MIT, where he demonstrates an impressive technological feat: A virtual reality installation that shows a younger version of himself interacting with his late parents, Howard and Maria Stark.

As impressive as it seems in a world where Stark has built countless flying suits, it's an even more remarkable achievement for the creators of Civil War. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Trent Claus, visual effects supervisor at Lola VFX, the visual effects company who worked on the movie, explained how they brought young Tony Stark to life — and how this kind of visual effects is actually way more used than we think.

It's A Tricky Process

The scene only lasts a few minutes, but it's not hard to see why the process of rendering a young Tony Stark is incredibly tricky. Instead of creating a full digital version, the visual effects artists actually used footage of the actor to retain his personality. And although the transformation is similar to using Photoshop, it's not just a matter of airbrushing Downey Jr.'s wrinkles. As Claus explains:

"Every feature of the face and body needed to be addressed in some fashion. One thing that happens to all of us is that the skin of the face gradually lowers in certain areas, and needs to be 'lifted' back to where it was at the age in question. But other changes are incredibly subtle, such as increase in the way light reflects off the sheen of the skin, a reduction in the appearance of tiny blood vessels under the surface of some parts of the face, or more blood flow in the cheeks giving them that familiar youthful 'glow.'"

Which Challenges Did The VFX Team Encounter?

Still got that youthful glow though. / Marvel Studios
Still got that youthful glow though. / Marvel Studios

The first difficulty stemmed from the length and complexity of the scene, says Claus.

"The shot was nearly 4,000 frames long, with Tony Stark turning from one side to the other multiple times, physically interacting with other actors, and the set itself, and moving closer to the camera for a very long, uninterrupted close-up."

But the ultimate challenge was the fact that unlike Benjamin Button — who Lola VFX has also worked on — audiences know what a young Robert Downey Jr. actually looks like. That's why the VFX team analyzed footage of his earlier movies.

"Additionally, when working with the appearance of a well-known actor such as Robert Downey Jr., there is the added pressure of living up to the youthful appearance that audiences remember."

Digital Botox Is Used More Often Than You Think

The transformation of Captain America / Marvel Studios
The transformation of Captain America / Marvel Studios

When we think "special effects," we obviously picture the Hulk or pre-serum Steve Rogers, but skin retouching in movies is actually very common — and very subtle. But most of the time, actors who got a digital lift of their features or a few pounds erased are keeping the intervention highly secret, so that most of the VFX companies working in Hollywood don't disclose who they've performed their magic on.

Research professor Paul Debevec, head of the Graphics Lab at the University of Southern California's Institute for Creative Technologies, links the trend to the often decried photoshopping of models in magazines.

"It's much more common than anyone realizes; this is the extension of what's done for magazine covers."

Scarlett Johansson for GQ
Scarlett Johansson for GQ

Just like magazines, this could lead to audiences having a distorted perception of what actors actually look like, which is risky for fans as well as the actors themselves.

"Of course one of the worries is that actors are going to have this Dorian Gray problem because the image that we have of them in the films is going to diverge further and further from the way that they look in real life. So they are going to have more trouble on the talk shows and on the red carpet, until those too can be touched up in real time with a yet-to-be invented technology."

If you add the fact that stunt doubles are sometimes rendered digitally for scenes deemed too dangerous for the actors, how close are we to watching entirely virtual movies?

Were you aware that visual effects are used to make actors look slightly younger?

Source: The Hollywood Reporter


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