DIGITAL de-aging has never been in spotlight as firmly as right now. With ‘Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny’ hitting theatres after years of delays, fans of the classic franchise are being treated to quite the shock in the film’s first half hour. Harrison Ford, now in his 80’s, appears to have aged with remarkable grace, not looking a day over 40. Obviously, it took more than a solid skincare routine and mindful meditation to get Ford looking so young. The octogenarian’s youthful transformation is actually the result of innovative digital de-aging technology that is slowly but surely taking over Hollywood. 

It took more than three years and over 100 visual effects artists to de-age Ford for his return as everyone’s favourite archaeologist, and that level of commitment to youthful vigour doesn’t come cheap. The latest Indiana Jones flick had a whopping budget of more than $428 million. A large chunk of that money went into CGI and the heavy costs of turning silver fox Ford into the heartthrob fans fell in love with back in the 70s and 80s. And here I was thinking my beauty products have gotten expensive. 

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While the shots of de-aged Ford pass the initial eye test, many have criticised the attempt to rejuvenate the Hollywood icon. Reception of the Dial of Destiny has been mixed, even debuting with the worst reviews of any Indiana Jones film, and while the prologue featuring de-aged Indi has been called the highlight of the movie, the off-putting appearance of the titular character has left many movie goers hot and bothered citing the actor looks “creepy”.  

Despite the latest claims of innate creepiness, digital de-aging has come a long way since the early days when it made the movie-going experience feel like you were staring deep into the souls of dead eyed, cartoonish video game characters. In fact, the cutting-edge tech has become a regular occurrence in blockbuster movies as our beloved actors have started to wrinkle and shrivel up, but will it be here to stay? 

How does digital de-aging work?   

Digital de-aging is a complex process that uses a variety of special effects and CGI. Archival footage of actors in past roles is often used to produce younger images, with computer generated touch-ups then applied to give the artificial characters the necessary joie de vivre. 

Earlier this year, Ford spoke about the process Lucasfilm used to bring back his boyish looks, “They have this artificial intelligence program that can go through every foot of film that Lucasfilm owns,” Ford said. “They can mine it from where the light is coming from, from the expression. I don’t know how they do it. But that’s my actual face. Then I put little dots on my face and I say the words and they make it. It’s fantastic.” 

Paramount

What actors have been de-aged? 

From its conception in the mid-2000’s in X-Men: The Last Stand, a handful of A-listers have gone under the digital knife, with differing results. Here’s a list of some of the biggest stars who have been digitally de-aged for the big screen: 

  • Brad Pitt in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (2008) 
  • Robert De Niro in The Irishman (2019) 
  • Robert Downey Jr in Captain America: Civil War (2016) 
  • Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy (2010) 
  • Stephen Lang in Avatar: The Way of Water (2022) 
  • Will Smith in Gemini Man (2019) 
  • Samuel L Jackson in Captain Marvel (2018) 

What’s the downside to de-aging? 

Digital de-aging has the power to grant eternal youth to our favourite movie stars and revive franchises long considered dead for endless reboots – so what’s the catch? 

One of the downsides to reusing the same tired old actors for the sake of nostalgia is that it deprives young up-and-comers of their opportunity to break through as the stars of tomorrow. We have to wonder if the next Indiana Jones might have missed his chance because the old Indiana Jones is using the power of technology to stay on screen. 

There’s also a moral dilemma at play. While most of the stars of yesterday are still alive, there will come a time when they pass on – and hungry film executives will be eager to use their likenesses to reap exorbitant profits. There is some moral ambiguity surrounding the acceptability of using old footage of dead actors to revive them on screen. We’re left with the very real possibility that all actors will be perpetually trapped in technological amber, only to be brought back to life like the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park – and we all know how that ended. 

Is digital de-aging the future of cinema? 

It’s unlikely that a few bad reviews of a de-aged Harrison Ford will reverse almost two decades of investment and hard work to improve digital de-aging, but it’s not the only possible future. In a world filled with CGI, some filmmakers are actually taking a stand against the revolutionary technology. Christopher Nolan has proudly claimed that ‘Oppenheimer’ features exactly zero CGI shots.  

The best bet is that digital de-aging will feature in an increasing number of films in coming years, but whether fans will warm up to the process remains to be seen.