Recently, after shooting three episodes of the WGN America drama Salem, an actor in a prominent role left the show for personal reasons. A few years ago, such a major switch would have been a costly debacle requiring expensive reshoots. But “we didn’t have to reshoot at all,” says veteran showrunner Brannon Braga. “We’re replacing his face with a new actor’s face.”
Today, digital face replacement is just one technique at Hollywood’s disposal. Braga regularly uses CG to retouch actors, “whether it’s a pimple, or an actress who has bags under her eyes on that particular day, or painting out a nipple in a sex scene.” When an actress got a nose ring without telling him, his postproduction team removed it at a cost of “tens of thousands of dollars.” Such work can get expensive, but it’s industry standard. “Look, we re-created the whole Library of Alexandria,” he says, referring to his work on the Neil deGrasse Tyson documentary series Cosmos. “Why wouldn’t we get rid of a cookie crumb on Neil’s mustache?”
But Braga is no trailblazer. “I do television,” he says, “not $300 million movies.” He’s just using digital techniques that have become ubiquitous over the last decade — even though they are largely invisible to most audiences, rarely discussed by creators, and usually hidden behind nondisclosure agreements. “Every time you think of visual effects, you think of an explosion or a giant robot,” says Vince Cirelli, a VFX supervisor at Luma Pictures, a firm that’s worked on everything from No Country for Old Men to Deadpool. “But we’re getting into a place where we’re using them to propel the story forward and it’s completely hidden from the audience.” When I ask him to name names, he laughs. “I am so heavily NDA-ed, I would have somebody fly through my window with AK-47s.”
“Hollywood magic” has always been a trick. But Vaselined lenses are one thing, whereas digital programs that allow filmmakers to “do virtually anything,” as Cirelli says, are transformative. In the early days of CG, Pixar made toys that talked. Now the new toys are often people: Most fans don’t have any idea when filmmakers are shaving years and pounds off their favorite actors, replacing them entirely with digital doubles, or even digitally reanimating their faces: adding a tear where none existed, a look of rage instead of fear.
Until recently, vain actors were limited to makeup, flattering lighting, corsets, plastic surgery, Botox, crash diets, personal trainers, steroids, muscle suits, color grading, lenses and filters, body doubles, and spray-on abs. Now they also have software: Zits vanish with a click. Wrinkles disappear. Abs harden. Jawlines sharpen. Cellulite vanishes. “In postproduction, if they want your nose to be a little smaller or a little bigger, that’s up to them, man,” says actor Michael Shannon. “Some attractive person gets out of a swimming pool dripping wet? Nobody wants to see how they really look: It’s fantasy.”
The industry leader in “beauty work” is Lola Visual Effects, the company that aged Brad Pitt up and down in Benjamin Button and wimpified Chris Evans in Captain America. Citing the “sensitive nature” of its clients, Lola declined interview requests, but co-founder Edson Williams explained in the book Masters of FX that a “love scene may not have the same impact if the stars have deep eye bags, rough skin, and puffy cheeks … My specialty is invisible cosmetic effects: If you leave the theater thinking your favorite actor has perfect skin and no body fat, then I did my job.” In 2015, Lola worked on 14 films, including The Big Short, Joy, and Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation.
Until 2003, Williams digitized pop stars with that “blurred grain that gives you that porcelain, perfect skin, Britney Spears look,” he told FXGuide. Then a studio called that “wanted to add a six-pack to its aging action star.” He co-founded Lola three months later with a business model based on blockbusters’ budgets.
At first Lola struggled to get faces right but then achieved an industry breakthrough by hiring an actual plastic surgeon and adapting his techniques. Today, Lola might begin with a “digital dermabrasion, removing any age spots or imperfects,” then reduce “eye bags,” use a “mesh warp” technique to tighten sagging skin or bulging flab, and perform a “digital face-lift” to trim jowls and areas like earlobes and noses that grow larger with age, while meticulously relighting every pixel. Throughout the industry, such work is “completely routine,” says veteran visual-effects supervisor Jim Rider (Vinyl, Focus, Foxcatcher). “I’ve done beauty retouching on women who are practically supermodels, but because they’ve got an extra few ounces …”
Often, technicians will simply stretch actors’ bodies vertically to make them appear leaner. “There was one actress where we had a 95 percent squeeze to make her thinner, where it’s barely noticeable,” says Oscar-nominated editor Joe Walker (Sicario, 12 Years a Slave). “The 95 percent trick works, but I feel immoral doing it.”
Effects can fix bad wigs, or work like Clearasil. “Maybe that unsightly zit on their chin becomes a distraction,” says Deborah Snyder, producer of Batman v Superman, “and the audience is looking at it instead of focusing on the intention of the scene.” On teen shows like Glee, “there was a pimple pass on most episodes,” says one director.
Beauty work is budgeted into most shows and films — and is considered such a priority that several industry sources say that they often cut other expenses to afford it. In the same way a magazine might use a star’s favorite hair and makeup team as a courtesy, producers sometimes negotiate a touch-up budget or promise to hire a preferred digital cosmetician. But “for a top actress, it’s usually noncontractual with us, so that that document never gets out,” says one prominent entertainment attorney. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that she not look haggard and that her jowls don’t look too old or whatever.” A studio executive says that on one of his biggest films, an A-list actress declined digital touch-ups—until she saw that they’d retouched her male co-stars. In the end, he says, “we did 275 touch-ups on her.”
De-aging, once a groundbreaking special effect in Benjamin Button, is not so special anymore. In Netflix’s Pee-wee’s Big Holiday, 63-year-old Paul Reubens picks up right where he left off in 1990, thanks to Vitality Visual FX, a firm started by two Lola founders. Reubens told the New York Times, “I could have had a face-lift and we would have saved $2 million.”
When stars look like they’ve had work done, it’s often hard to tell if that work is surgical, cosmetic, or digital. (See the suspiciously plasticky 2010 Johnny Depp–Angelina Jolie film The Tourist.) So firms present three options to a director: low, medium, or high retouching. Walker, who describes these options as “slightly retouched, quite retouched, or full-on taxidermy,” usually picks low or medium. After that, “they start to look like those girls dressed up in Texan parades.”
Ironically, digital-effects companies like Lola are now busy undoing actual plastic surgery on actors whose “faces are pulled too tight,” Lola’s Williams has said. “They’ll come in with too much Botox. There’s no movement in their brows. There’s been a few projects where we’ve had to animate the brow to give the performance it should be giving.”
But these tools aren’t limited to eyebrows. “We can easily enhance muscles,” says Cirelli. Effects artists can add bulk, definition, and throbbing veins.
It’s even easier to transpose a star’s face onto a stunt double’s body, especially if the stunt is difficult. “Our hope is that you watched The Walk and believed that Joseph Gordon-Levitt learned to juggle five clubs while balancing on a slack line,” VFX supervisor Aidan Fraser told CineFX. “Those shots were digital face replacements.”
Face-replacement and augmentation techniques can allow an actor to play literally anything without uncomfortable makeup or costumes. “In films like The Avengers,” says actor Paul Bettany, “the suit I wear is a muscle suit, whether they’re drawing it on after the fact or I’m wearing it, and frankly I’d rather them draw it. [A physical suit] is fucking cumbersome.”
Occasionally, actors’ heads are even pasted back onto CG models of their own bodies, as one star’s was when he returned for reshoots of his big-budget action film a year later. “He was very happy to have a digital scan of his body for this movie,” says a producer, who asks to be identified only as “the friend of an international sex symbol,” “because he went through an intensive and pretty joyless diet and training regimen for six months before shooting.” Rather than hitting the gym yet again, the actor taped fresh footage of his face that was matched with animations of his body at its peak hotness.
Producers can also use effects to save precious shoot days instead of waiting for an actor to get ripped, gain weight, recover from an injury, learn a skill, or deliver a baby. Instead of forcing star Jack O’Connell to starve himself completely in Angelina Jolie’s prisoner-of-war biopic Unbroken, Lola finished the job with digital “emaciation.” Instead of waiting out Claire Danes’s pregnancy, the producers of Homeland would paste the torso of a skinny double onto hers.
For decades, body transformation has connoted an actor’s extreme, transformative commitment: from Robert De Niro in Raging Bull to Charlize Theron in Monster. These days, our actors may be just as committed, but many transformations are often enabled by performance-enhancing drugs or effects. Oscar winner Geoffrey Rush, who believes “people hire me for my jiggly, flappy bits,” says, “We’ve always had trick photography. They would spend four hours lighting a Bette Davis shot. Now every shot is CG. We’re all going back to Georges Méliès.”
Because effects artists are manipulating video, they aren’t just editing appearance; they’re reshaping performance. Since the birth of film, editors have stitched actors’ multiple takes. “Now a scene with three actors in a room in a wide shot? If you like the fifth take for two actors and the seventh take for the other, you can digitally cut [the actors out] and piece [them] back together,” says director Nicolas Winding Refn (Drive, Neon Demon). If an actor pauses too long, a director doesn’t have to cut to a different shot, since a VFX artist can delete a few seconds, then morph the face to hide the transition.
“If it works better if the two actors hold the moment but one turns away,” Rider says, “we can make it so she never turns her head.” In the olden days — say, five years ago — you might cheat by cutting away from the actor and adding a few lines of rerecorded dialogue spoken offscreen. Now, says Rider, “we can do morphing work on the mouth to make the lips appear to say the new word.” Instead of throwing out a bad scene, you can digitally erase the head of an actor, film him speaking better lines against a green screen, and paste the new head back into the old shots. That’s what Gore Verbinski did on 2013’s The Lone Ranger. “[Verbinksi] didn’t really believe it,” Lola’s Nittman told FXGuide. “He was like, Wait, I can shoot my movie after I shoot the movie?”
Fans were shocked in 2006 to hear that digital artists reportedly added a tear to Jennifer Connelly’s face in Blood Diamond. Nittman has bragged that Lola once “had to remove sweat from an actor in over 60 minutes of footage.” But in the 2015 boxing movie Southpaw, the digital artists at Zero VFX didn’t stop at sweat, spit, blood, and wounds: Fighters were manipulated to appear closer to one another; Jake Gyllenhaal’s arms were elongated so his pulled punches appeared to land. His gloves were animated so they appeared to crumple. That head-on, slow-motion punch to Gyllenhaal’s face? At the moment of “impact,” Gyllenhaal’s face is overlaid with animated skin that shudders and warps, as if concussed.
“I had an actress who looked afraid as she was screaming,” Braga says, “so I had them reconstruct her eyebrows and turn that scream of fear into a scream of rage.” In a YouTube demonstration of the Oscar-winning software Mocha, you can watch as instructor Mary Poplin sizes up footage of an actress blinking and looking off-camera, then seamlessly replaces her eyes with ones that don’t blink and stare directly into the lens. Then she enlarges the eyes to make them more sympathetic and reconfigures the mouth “to change her smile so it looks a little more genuine.” That’s right: CG can make your actress’s Frankensteinian stitched smile more genuine.
Digital body doubles — digi-doubles — were goofy when Tobey Maguire transformed into rubbery CG in the 2002 Spider-Man, but the difference between real humans and digi-doubles is rapidly becoming imperceptible. “I’ve seen it just going from Man of Steel to Batman v Superman,” says Deborah Snyder. “The digital doubles that effects houses create for character have gotten so good so fast.” In the past, digi-doubles could only be used at a distance or in the distracting frenzy of action sequences. Now, Snyder says, “you can get really close to them.”
Often used in real-to-CG handoffs to help an actor do something dangerous or sexy, digi-doubles can also solve one of the strangest problems of shooting complex green-screen action sequences: The animation often looks real, but real actors don’t. While animating the final fight scene in The Avengers, the all-CG Hulk and Iron Man looked terrific, but when the filmmakers decided they wanted more control over Chris Evans, they animated him too.
For actors, this evolving technology can be unnerving. Jessica Chastain says she was scanned on the set of a mid-budget drama — and wasn’t exactly sure why. “They took me into a room. They scanned my face. Then they asked me to smile, to frown,” Chastain tells me. “I said no. I just didn’t know how they were going to use it.”
This technology is raising thorny legal issues concerning how digital likenesses may be used: Contracts often include language that ensures scans and doubles can only be used in the original project — and not sequels or spinoffs, Pepsi ads, or video games. Avatar star Stephen Lang has joked that “it would be strange if 30 years after I’m dead I show up doing porno.” It’s not an outrageous concern: “You never let a computerized double participate in nude or simulated sex scenes,” says an entertainment attorney, who includes contractual clauses to that effect.
Legally, most stars have control over their likenesses — or their estates do, as in the cases of Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe, and Fred Astaire, who were all raised from the dead to sell stuff — but stunt personnel and motion-capture actors generally do not if the character they play doesn’t bear their likeness. “Once they do it, it’s like a piece of code,” the attorney explains. Producers “can use the performance again and again and no one will ever know.”
Once part of the postproduction process, digital effects now often precede completed scripts. VFX firms develop assets during preproduction, not knowing how they’ll be used, and are often in dialogue with directors throughout an entire shoot. “We cling to this auteur theory, the idea that the director got everything he wanted and the editor sewed it together,” says the editor Joe Walker, who boasts of pragmatic digital “cheats” throughout all of his films, including the Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. “Now I think a director is stupid if he says he just didn’t get the material.” The unprecedented power of digital tools seems to trump most ethical qualms about authenticity, which has always been a slippery concept in Hollywood. “On one level, there’s Ken Loach, and on the other, it’s Michael Bay,” says Walker. “And I worry about any technology that pushes us more toward the Bay end.”
Retouched, impossibly enhanced bodies are creating unrealistic new body-image standards — and the effects are so sophisticated and invisible that most audiences aren’t aware of how much they’ve been manipulated. “For the next generation of teenager, it’s going to be hard not to hate yourself a lot more physically, because what we mirror to them is so godlike,” says Refn, who says he retouches people sparingly in part because he thinks it’s alienating. “If you look at the greatest movie stars, we identify much more with imperfection than perfection.”
Technology is radically expanding the total range of storytelling tools available to any director — blockbuster or Oscar drama — and we’re just beginning to see the implications. For instance, plastic surgery, PEDs, and digital youthenizing are enabling action heroes and sexpots to retain muscle mass and taut skin far beyond their prime. “We can protect the brand that the studios and agents have invested vast amounts of money in, for example, by reducing the actor’s age,” Lola’s Nittman once said. “We can let them make another sequel that before may not have been possible.”
Recently, when Steven Spielberg announced a new Indiana Jones movie, fans complained that a 73-year-old Harrison Ford was too old, but their outrage was based on a false assumption: that Ford will look 73 in the film. If he wanted to, Spielberg could make Ford look 38, his age in Raiders of the Lost Ark, or 47, his age when Indy drank from the Holy Grail.
*This article appears in the April 4, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.