How Did Marvel De-Age Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Downey Jr.? Lola VFX Supervisor Spills the Secrets

Samuel Jackson -Publicity - Photofest -stills -Split - Embed -2019
Chuck Zlotnick/Marvel Studios; Columbia Pictures/Photofest

From left: Digital Samuel L. Jackson as Nick Fury de-aged for March’s Captain Marvel and in the present day in July’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.

While VFX house Lola has earned a reputation in Hollywood for its “de-aging” techniques, the specifics of the work has mostly been a tightly kept secret.

Until now, the secrecy has been due to de-aging techniques mainly being used for “beauty” work such as removing wrinkles or covering eye bags on actors. “Most of those are strictly covered by non-disclosure agreements,” explained Lola VFX supervisor Trent Claus during a presentation Wednesday at the View international VFX and computer graphics conference in Turin, Italy. “It wasn’t until the work was related to the story that we were able to talk about it.”

Those exceptions for story-driven work — such as recent projects Captain Marvel and Avengers: Endgame — are now the predominant focus at Lola, according to Claus. 

The VFX supervisor explained that the Lola process effectively involves 2D digital compositing onto the actual face, meaning the end result is a sort of hybrid of live-action and digital effects. To make this as believable as possible, Claus said they studied human anatomy and met with plastic surgeons to understand the subtleties of aging.

The delicate work often included reducing body mass and shape, and, of course, sidestepping the uncanny valley when working on the face. "It's naturally one of the most unforgiving things that we can do [in VFX]," Claus said of the latter.

He added that in instances where the performance requires a body double, "we select a double not necessarily by their look, but what we find are the defining characteristics that we need to most reference."

Endgame contains an estimated 200 aging and de-aging shots, including work on the superheroes when they time-travel as well as on the late Stan Lee. The film also includes Michael Douglas aged 45 years in reverse — Claus said it was “the most we ever de-aged an actor” — as well as an aged Captain America, which Claus said was the largest increase in age that the studio has performed. Chris Evans, now 38, was given a look equivalent to a man in his 90s, Claus explained.

“We had an older double on the set [for the body], and we shot Chris with some prosthetics,” he said. “We learned from aging Peggy [Haley Atwell] in Captain America: Winter Soldier that we spent a lot of time working on the neck. It took so much effort that we lost important time that we should have spent on her face. This time, we built neck prosthetics to take it 75 percent of the way there, while we focused more on the face."

Lola also led the de-aging work on Captain Marvel, which included Samuel Jackson’s Nick Fury as well as Clark Gregg’s Agent Coulson. “Nick Fury was our first feature de-aging a major character," said Claus.

On whether to employ makeup, VFX or a combination of both, he noted that “digital has the advantage of being additive or subtractive. Makeup never can be subtractive, though it can be implied with shadow.” Claus added that Lola combined makeup and VFX for the aged Captain America in Endgame “because it saved time. … I feel some of the best work is when they work hand-in-hand. [The viewers] are not sure how it’s done. You want to keep them guessing."

The VFX supervisor summed up, “I feel like we have introduced a new artistic tool for filmmakers to use to tell their stories. I’m a firm believer in invisible effects.”

Incidentally, in tracing the studio’s past work and procedures, clips included shots in X-Men 3 and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, as well as how Lola’s VFX helped Robert De Niro show the passage of time in David O’Russell’s 2015 drama Joy.

The Lola technique greatly differs from the work on De Niro in Martin's Scorsese's upcoming film The Irishman, which employed the use of a fully digital human where needed, as well as the fully-digital Will Smith in Gemini Man. “We have never used a digital double,” Claus said. “Filmmakers have to make that decision [on which technique to use] based on their needs, [considering factors such as] the requirements on the set, their schedule and how dramatic the performances need to be.”

Looking ahead, Claus expects AI to “dramatically” change the way de-aging is accomplished. “It can make a pretty good comp really fast that looks really good on your phone, but as soon as you blow it up on a big screen it falls apart,” he explained. “As it stands now, it looks like AI could speed up steps in the process, but we’re nowhere near [using AI alone] to produce a final image for a feature film.”

Claus also suggested that there could be a growing number of Iegal and ethical questions surrounding the use a person’s likeness. “As [the use of AI] and deepfakes continue, it will open a can of worms that will be solved in court,” he opined, raising a series of questions during an interview with The Hollywood Reporter following his stage presentation. “Is your likeness an asset? Can it be bought and sold? Who has the right to use it? If your likeness is an asset, can you ‘pass’ the asset to your kids? If that is true, then it’s property. So can your likeness be repossessed in a bankruptcy?”

Claus will join a panel of VFX pros to further discuss de-aging on Friday at the View confab.