A few thoughts on digital de-ageing, Indiana Jones 5, and why the technology still isn’t quite believable…
It already feels like the opening 20 to 25 minutes of Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny has been dissected in some detail, just a month after it’s been released into the world. The film, the swansong of course for one of cinema’s most beloved characters, opens ambitiously with an extended action sequence, taking us all the way back to 1944. Thing is, that action sequence features Harrison Ford, who was in his late 70s when he shot it, and some nifty stunt doubles. This is all then glued together through a lot of computer work, which has apparently de-aged Ford to make him appear once again as a younger Indy.
This isn’t new. The first time I saw technology actively used to de-age an actor for an extended piece of screen time was 2006’s X-Men: The Last Stand, not the most cherished entry in that particular franchise. It wasn’t the first film to do it, rather it was the first that seemed to brazenly own what it had done. Previously, such digital nips and tucks weren’t really that publicised, as this excellent piece over at FX Guide discusses (in particular citing the digital touch-up work in 2003’s Terminator 3: Rise Of The Machines).
Whilst the technology and the sheer amount of digital power that’s underpinning all of this work has clearly moved on enormously in the 20 years or so since, the residual problems to my eyes have not. Cinema, after all, requires some degree of belief suspension, and for films and stories to work within their own realities. In the case of digital de-ageing in those stories, my problem remains this: I still don’t buy it.
Since I’ve walked out of Indiana Jones & The Dial Of Destiny, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Just why does it rankle? Is it the age-old thing of if I’m thinking about the technology, then I’m not thinking about the story? Well, quite possibly. But specific to Dial Of Destiny, the story was still something of a mystery in that opening sequence. Yet I felt like I was watching a very well rendered PlayStation 5 graphic. Terrific graphics, not a human.
I’ve concluded two things, the more I think about it.
Firstly, digital de-ageing too often focuses on the visuals, and doesn’t take into account one other major key ingredient of cinema: sound. In the case of the most recent Indiana Jones adventure, even if I’d fully bought the visual representation in front of me – and I nearly did – the wheels come off a little when Indy opens his mouth.
It’s not, after all, bodies alone that age as we get older. So do our voices. Listen to Michael Douglas in the latest Ant-Man film – accepting that he’s been through well-known health challenges – and the passage of the best part of a decade has seen the tone of his voice change too. It’s the same with Harrison Ford. It’s the fault of neither actor, and leaned into, it can be really well utilised. But that PlayStation 5 character I was looking at on screen was sounding like a man in his late 70s. I had two things knocking me out of the reality of the moment, and I do wonder if it was the combination of both that lifted me away from believing what was going on.
The second challenge that digital de-ageing faces, again to my eyes, was highlighted by what probably remains its highest-profile deployment to date: Martin Scorsese’s 2019 movie, The Irishman. Here’s a four hour mob drama of which around two and a half hours of screen time involves some degree of digital effects trickery. It’s well known that the likes of Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci were taken back to their younger selves for the early parts of that particular story, and visually, I think this was done more successfully than I saw the other week.
But still, there were cracks. One sequence involving a kerbside kicking reveals that the young-looking men on screen have the gait and movement of, well, older men. The sound didn’t strike me as problematic in The Irishman though, and the gap felt really impressively tight and small.
Yet there was still a gap, a little sliver of light to punctuate what was happening. It’s a gap that demonstrates the high bar digital de-ageing is aiming for in order to work: that it actually has to be perfect for filmmakers to pull it out. It has to be entirely unnoticeable, unless played for some kind of effect, so that the audience isn’t taken away from the narrative to question what they’re looking at.
The issue, as well, is no matter how much filmmakers miss by, this whole technology strikes me as quite binary: it either works, or it doesn’t. I’m not quite saying that the opening of Indy 5 could have been done with stick drawings and I’d be equally as convinced by what I was watching, but it’s like they hit the post and still missed the goal. Human brains are almost trained to spot the most minor flaw in what they’re processing, and are very good at that. If there’s some kind of glitch or moment that challenges the reality of what we’re looking at, then it’s a niggling alarm bell in our brains.
All of which is incredibly unfair on the assorted visual effects wizards around the world wrestling genuinely impressive technical achievements to the screen, in a manner that deserves to work better than it arguably is. Maybe the much-missed director Penny Marshall had the approach right though. When she came to make her much-loved 1992 baseball film A League Of Their Own and set it in two different periods of time, she didn’t use visual trickery, or expensive make-up, or get her Commodore 64 out for a graphical tinker.
Instead, she just had an old cast and a younger cast. I remember watching the film at the time – and the more recent Greatest Days does this really well – and thinking that’s a bit odd at best, but I accept that. My brain quickly switched from one to another, and it just made sense. Even with the Indiana Jones series beforehand, we’ve seen this in the prologue to Indiana Jones & The Last Crusade, where River Phoenix takes on the role, but I do accept that recasting 1944 Indy is more problematic, given Ford was playing the role himself of the character at that age.
Of course, when Marshall made A League Of Their Own, it was layers of make-up that tended to be the most prominent age-ing piece of on-screen effects work. Would she have opted for computers had she been making the film today? It’s not for me to say, but I’d like to think that she wouldn’t. Because whilst watching the movie three decades later, it just works. Conversely, watching X-Men: The Last Stand again nearly 20 years on, and some shifty looking computer graphics are looking even shiftier.
It’s a tough business, the visual effects world, that’s been dominated by headlines of crunch culture, layoffs, and not great pay. I’d add something else to that list: visual effects geniuses – and they really are geniuses – might just be being asked to do something that’s actually impossible, certainly in the latest Indy is anything to go by. Maybe their efforts are best deployed elsewhere, and maybe a good double or two might be the smarter investment and storytelling trick.
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