While Marvel Studios have produced countless films that have entranced global audiences, there’s a compelling argument that as fun as these movie are, they’re not exactly pushing the envelope technically. But one aspect of the MCU that’s often overlooked is how the studio is continually breaking new ground with CGI de-ageing of its actors. The most prominent and successful example is Samuel L. Jackson in the 1990s-set Captain Marvel, but Avengers: Endgame saw a de-aged Michael Douglas and John Slattery (and an aged Chris Evans) and no one batted an eyelid.
But there was one other actor who was de-aged much more dramatically: Stan Lee. In his painfully brief Endgame cameo, we saw a younger Stan driving past a military base preaching peace and love. It came on the heels of his Captain Marvel cameo, in which he was de-aged to his early 80s.
Here’s Lola VFX’s Trent Claus on how they did it, as told to ComicBook.com:
“There was some work, very minor de-aging done on Captain Marvel. But that was 10 years ago or something, so not really a noticeable change overall, especially for a man of his age. But for this one, we had to go back 45 years, so it was a pretty sizable amount. The work that we do, we don’t create a CG replication of the actor.
We use the actor that’s actually there on screen, so we were actually modifying the actor in the performance that was there on set as opposed to re-creating something new. So, we have to treat each and every frame like a painting, where you’re working with light and shadow, and form, and composition, and things like that to accomplish the goal.”
It’s a pretty tricky technique to get right, as you’re in danger of falling into the uncanny value if you plaster too much CGI makeup on a character. The earliest example I can think of was also done by Lola VFX in X-Men: The Last Stand and it was incredibly creepy and plastic looking. But we’ve come a long way since then, as Klaus explains:
“We’ve got a highly trained roster of artists here that work for us that have been doing this for a long time. Lola started de-aging way back on X-Men 3, and have been doing it ever since. I started with the first, as far as de-aging and stuff goes, with the first Captain America.”
He then says that the end result is based on old pictures and footage of the person, with many images combined to create a model of the past face of the individual:
“In addition to that, you have to rely on the artist’s knowledge of anatomy, the changes that happen to humans over time, the physiological changes in the skin and the muscles, and the mechanics of the expressions that you make in your face, and also the body, the posture and the build of the body changes over time. All those things have to be taken into consideration.”
CGI de-ageing is only going to become more common over time. On one hand, it’s an interesting way to reminisce about actors in their heyday and a great way to do flashbacks. But on the other, you still have to think of a generation of young actors whose baby faces might not be the commodity they currently are for very long.