DISNEY FILMS last year provided high and low points for actors who, thanks to effects magic, popped up on screen as younger representations of themselves. Now, Team Disney has taken a major leap forward in its ability to peel away the years.
Last May’s “Captain America: Civil War” memorably featured a scene with a composite representation of Robert Downey Jr. as Tony Stark that effectively summoned the actor’s smooth ’80s countenance. And last December, by contrast, a brief representation of ’70s-era Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia (using a stand-in actress) in “Rogue One” rang as jarringly artificial.
As “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2″ opens today, though, Disney/Marvel presents a new pinnacle for a naturalistic de-aging of an actor.
Early on in the new film, Kurt Russell, portraying a godlike character named Ego, appears rather eerily as he looked circa 1980 — well after his youth-actor days for Disney and shortly before his iconic turn in “Escape From New York.” The visual effect is so seamless that it’s awe-inspiring.
“I watched it with a very big audience a couple of weeks ago and that audience, because they love Kurt Russell, they gasped as that shot came up,” Henry Braham, the film’s director of photography, tells The Washington Post’s Comic Riffs. “And what they were gasping about was their memory of [young] Kurt, of course.”
So just how did the “Guardians” filmmakers do it? Well, it involved two actors, some deft makeup and the cutting-edge ability to build a composite face.
“How we did it specifically was, we made up Kurt in the right way … and [then] we put dots on his face” for creating the digital effects, says James Gunn, the writer-director of the planned “Guardians” trilogy.
“We have him act the scene with the actors, then we have a young actor named Aaron Schwartz who watched everything that Kurt did,” Gunn says, “and he would go out and do the scene again and mimic exactly what Kurt did — he looks a lot like a young Kurt.
“Then, we basically take Kurt’s performance and we fuse part of Aaron’s skin onto Kurt’s body and onto Kurt’s performance.”
Braham notes that the physical “raw material” was vital in creating an organic look.
“It’s quite a brilliant execution of the technique of de-aging an actor’s face,” Braham says. “But incidentally, I think [Russell’s] present face is fascinating to watch. I watch actors all day long, and I love his face — I think it’s so expressive.”
From there, Gunn credits the technological growth. “It helped that Kurt has aged pretty well and that the makeup and hair team did their [work] properly,” the director says, “but it’s also that visual effects are just getting better and better.
“It’s not cheap and it’s not easy,” Gunn adds. “That [scene] pretty much took our entire post-production period to finish. I didn’t get the final shots till almost a few weeks before ‘lock.’ ”
Braham also credits the humanity that permeates the scene — even through the digital wizardry — as Ego enjoys a romantic moment with his partner. “I think why it also works is because the scene is about the idea and it’s not about: ‘Aren’t we clever? We’ve done a brilliant facial transformation of an actor we love.’ It’s done with a light touch.”
And did the cinematic transformation pass the ultimate viewer test — with Russell’s longtime partner, Goldie Hawn?
Says Gunn: “She seemed to like it.”