Eternal youth may be the as yet unattainable dream of humankind but technology is giving us a sense of what it would be like -- at least on celluloid -- with the first digital human making his debut in Ang Lee's new film "Gemini Man".
Digital technology takes a deep dive into the science of aging with Junior, a 23-year-old clone of Will Smith's character in the film that released on Friday.
Going beyond special effects, the de-aging of Smith was a laborious and expensive process involving the deep study of, among other things, how his skin ages, how expressions change blood flow in certain areas of the face or how his squint would look like.
Though films such as Lee's previous film "Life of Pi", "Rogue One", "Blade Runner" and "Planet of the Apes" came close enough in creating the most realistic creatures, this is the first time technology has been able to create a digital human.
Lee, who created a computer generated Tiger in "Life of Pi", said he felt it was within his grasp to take on the challenge of working on a story about a man hunted by his own clone.
"I did 'Hulk' 20 years ago and, not too long ago, I experimented with the tiger in 'Life of Pi'. In my head, (I thought) this is within reach. But now this is with a human face, so you are playing with fire. This is new and scary but, at the same time, it's pretty exciting," Lee had said at a press event of the film here recently.
He joked that Smith was cheaper to hire than his digital clone.
Lee and Martin Scorsese, two of the most respected directors in Hollywood are experimenting with this technology at different levels in "Gemini Man" and in "The Irishman", where Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino have been de-aged to portray their younger selves.
"Gemini Man" has advanced technology in other ways too.
The film is in 3D and has been shot at 120 frames per second instead of the usual 24 frames. The images, in high frame rate, are so real that Smith said he couldn't even wear make-up as it would be visible.
He said it was unnerving yet surreal to confront an almost real version of his 23-year-old in the film. It was part of the reason he said yes to the story, which has been in the making in Hollywood for almost two decades.
"It's a 100 per cent digital human, in the same way that the tiger in 'Life of Pi', was digital... It's the first digital human. It's actually a spectacular thing, to be able to make people feel emotion in that way, capturing the youthful eyes. You can't fake innocence," Smith said at a media event here.
According to the film's Oscar-winning VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer, doing work in 3D is a challenge.
"... to create comfortable 3D, both sides have to be exactly right for the eyes. And if you're putting in a digital object and you're a fraction of a pixel off, it feels like it's the wrong depth and it creates this confusion. And in a shot where a lot of things are exploding, there's just a lot of work to make sure that all fits into a comfortable frame," Westenhofer told PTI.
The door, however, is now open for filmmakers to experiment should they decide to opt for digital recreation of actors, Westenhofer added.
"It is for fimmakers and audiences to decide what they want to see. It certainly allows that capability (keeping the stars young) should one decide to use it. Certainly there are ethical discussions to be had about seeing deceased actors and what that means. But should we decide to do so, it is in our ability," Westenhofer told PTI.
The human brain is wired in a way that it is near impossible to trick it into believing something if it does not appear real.
"A lot of the difference between a good CGI and reality can be subconscious to the point that even us as experts or artists have a hard time in pointing and saying exactly what it is," Westenhofer explained, adding that it is important for visual effects artistes to cross the "uncanny valley" where you finally trick the brain into believing that a digital creation is actually real.
He teamed up with Weta Digital's Guy Williams to bring Smith's 23-year-old self alive, which predictably was expensive and a long process.
To create a realistic version of Smith, Williams said, researchers went through his entire filmography, pulling up not only pictures but performances to create expressions.
The most challenging part was to find a scene of Smith where he is moody and dramatic.
"The most frustrating thing, for me, was the fact that 23-year-old Will Smith never acted in a movie that had a lot of moody, dramatic emotions. We have this really rich library of films that we can pull for Will Smith but they are all like 'Ah yeah'... Will Smith doing his Will Smithness. Unfortunately, the character in this movie almost never does that. So it make it really hard for us to find stuff to verify what we were doing," Williams told PTI.
Westenhofer still remembers Lee's call in August 2017, asking whether it was possible do something with a human what they did with the tiger in "Pi".
"We looked at what had been done up to that point and felt films like 'Rogue One' and 'Blade Runner' had come close enough. And even movies like 'Planet of the Apes', which weren't necessarily person, but just the most realistic, humanoid creature that you've ever seen, and felt that we could.
"We could push forward with the same. With 'Pi', there was a lot of determination and it was a little scary, just because you're trying something unknown, but that's kind of what's fun to do. We felt that it was ready, and we gave it a shot," he said.
"Gemini Man" also stars Clive Owen, Elizabeth Winstead and Benedict Wong.
(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)