by D.W. Lundberg

Sunday, August 23, 2015


If Ant-Man and Terminator Genisys have taught us anything this summer, it's that there's still plenty of life left in our older generation of actors yet. And I don't mean that in the metaphorical, gee-I-never-knew-they-still-had-it-in-them sprightly performance kind of way. After all, Michael Douglas is merely a supporting player in Marvel's latest bid for superhero supremacy, and spends most of his time standing on the sidelines, spouting exposition. Schwarzenegger, too, plays more of an expository machine than killing machine this time out, trying to make sense of so many fractured timelines and cracking jokes about being "old but not obsolete" (though box office pundits might beg to differ on that last one). The problem is, most of our marquee movie stars of yesteryear simply can't compete with the Vin Diesels and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnsons of today - Douglas, for all his vim and vigor, turns 71 this September, while Schwarzenegger celebrated his 68th birthday on July 30 - so they've been "promoted" to mentor roles or crotchety figures of fun in order to stay relevant. For one brief shining moment in both Ant-Man and Terminator Genisys, however, we're reminded of their past glories (and unwithered faces) with the help of some revolutionary CG effects, and the results, for a change, are breathtaking. Never before has a digital face-lift looked so good.

Granted, CGI hasn't always had the best track record for replicating human flesh on screen. Skin tones tend to look plastic, and contrary to popular belief, human beings do not move with the dexterity of stop-motion animated figures, with rubbery, elongated limbs. And yet filmmakers insist on pushing the technology to its absolute limits, regardless of necessity or common sense. Close-ups of faces, in particular, are especially unforgiving, since we're practically invited to get a cold, hard look at the imperfections of the process. Like this computer-generated visage of actor Bruce Lee, resurrected for a Johnnie Walker whiskey commercial that aired on Chinese television in 2013:

Or this CG'd shot (mentioned elsewhere on the site) of Jeff “The Dude” Bridges, grafted onto the body of a completely different actor for TRON Legacy (2010):

For Terminator Salvation (2009), director McG resorted to this egregious use of a CG Arnold Schwarzenegger for the climax of his film:

The inanity of the moment aside (the machines of Skynet, intent on wiping future-savior-of-humanity John Connor from the face of the earth, capture his future-father Kyle Reese in order to lure Connor into an elaborate trap... excuse me, what?), the tragedy here is that it takes us out of the movie itself. Did the filmmakers honestly think we'd mistake this plasticine Schwarzenegger for the actual one? To be fair, the real-life Governator was busy fulfilling his duties to California at the time of filming, so he understandably couldn't commit to a cameo. And the demands of the script, as empty-headed as they may be, required a younger, sprightlier Schwarzenegger identical to the Terminator he originally played two decades ago. (Legacy Effects, a San Fernando-based company, took a life-sized bust of Arnold's face - as well as reference photos circa 1984 - and fed them into a computer, essentially creating their digital actor from scratch.) 

The screenplay for Terminator Genisys also called for a 1980s-era Schwarzenegger to make an appearance, this time for scenes re-created from James Cameron's original film. This junior Terminator would not only be required to speak (unlike its Salvation incarnation, which glowered completely in silence), but would also share the screen with an older version of itself - aka, middle-aged, present-day Schwarzenegger! MPC, the FX house assigned to the project, took 12 months to complete 31 shots for the film, using performance capture of Arnold's facial expressions plus archival footage of his '77 documentary Pumping Iron. The difference is uncanny: even the most obsessive Terminator fan would be hard-pressed telling the old film apart from the new one. (Genisys director Alan Taylor was forced to copy shots exactly as they appeared in T1, because of the obvious mismatch between film stock.) Here, compare two shots of Schwarzenegger from 1984 and his "synthespian" counterpart from 2015:

The lighting, the textures, the muscle movement all combine for what is perhaps the most persuasive case for CG skin replication ever committed to film. Until later when it turns it head, that is, at which point the seams begin to show:

It's one thing, of course, to conjure up a living, breathing, believable human being from an infinite number of one's and zero's. It's another thing entirely to take existing footage of an actor and shave decades off his/her face and frame. For X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), Twentieth Century Fox hired Lola Visual Effects to digitally "de-age" Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen for a scene set twenty years in the past. The actors were filmed on a closed set with minimal makeup. That footage was then handed over to Lola's FX artists, who applied "digital skin grafts" to the actors' faces - removing wrinkles and re-sizing facial features including their noses and ears. The results, shall we say, are somewhat unnerving, as if someone literally took some skin-colored paint and smeared it across Stewart and McKellen's foreheads, cheeks and chins:

Since then, Lola has become one of the top special effects companies in the industry, working on high-profile films such as The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button (2008), The Social Network (2010) and Life Of Pi (2012). With Ant-Man, Lola relied on some of the same tried-and-true techniques they'd been using since X-Men - shooting Michael Douglas on set sans makeup, say  - as well as technological breakthroughs which helped them shrink Chris Evans in Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). The effect is stunning; for a moment there, I was convinced they'd simply repurposed scenes from Wall Street or Basic Instinct, using CG trickery to move Douglas's mouth à la Forrest Gump:

The scene is similar - in concept, at least - to what we see in The Last Stand: set two decades prior to the events of the film, with some of the cinema's most famous faces looking for all the world like they'd just stepped out of a time capsule, and making vague threats/promises that will no doubt reverberate throughout the rest of the plot that's about to unfold. But where X3 lingered on the abstract expressions of its actors, our initial admiration slipping from "How'd they do that?" to "Please make it stop!", Ant-Man does the opposite, with shots of Douglas's miraculous mug so fleeting, they leave us wanting more. It's that attention to detail which separates a really good special effect from a particularly bad one.

Looks like there's hope for the future after all.

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