Source: Carolyn Giardina

“It was time to try a digital human,” says Ang Lee of the steep challenge of creating a young Will Smith as ‘Gemini Man’ and Scorsese’s ‘Irishman’ push new boundaries of VFX, budgets and, say some, ethics.

While directing Will Smith in Gemini Man, in which the 51-year-old actor stars as an assassin hunted by a clone of his younger self, director Ang Lee made an unusual request of his star. He asked Smith to “act less.”

Lee needed Smith to go back to his less-polished acting roots from the early 1990s in order to capture the performance for his younger clone. But to make Smith look like his youthful self required a whole new level of trickery that saw Lee and his visual effects team create a fully digital CGI 23-year-old Will Smith.

The result: On Oct. 11, audiences will see a Fresh Prince-era Smith trade punches with his present-day self. A few weeks later, septuagenarian screen legends Robert De Niro and Al Pacino will perform together as younger men in Martin Scorsese’s gangster epic The Irishman. As visual effects technologies advance, filmmakers are rethinking the potential of digital humans, particularly as a tool for de-aging actors.

While crafting a believable synthetic human is the most difficult of VFX wizardry, Hollywood saw the possibilities a decade ago when an elderly Brad Pitt aged backward into his youthful prime in David Fincher’s The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. The work won the VFX Oscar that year, but the challenge of aging an actor up or down was still so daunting that it was rarely used outside of limited and specific story needs.

In 2019, nostalgic audiences are seeing several stars appear as their younger selves thanks to a range of VFX techniques, including Samuel L. Jackson in Captain Marvel, Robert Downey Jr. in Avengers: Endgame and Linda Hamilton in the upcoming Terminator: Dark Fate, as she returns to the franchise after 28 years (2015’s Terminator: Genisys likewise featured a de-aged Arnold Schwarzenegger).

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