Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Wrinkle-Proof Comedian

Paul Reubens prepared carefully for the television comeback of his comic alter ego, Pee-wee Herman.  But Reubens had aged considerably since Pee-wee made his big-screen splash in 1985's Pee-wee's Big Adventure.  The 62-year-old actor was convinced that his physical changes, including his wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin, would not mix well with his carefully maintained image for the character.  So, at his insistence, producers paid a prestigious special effects company two million dollars to use cutting-edge visual effects to make the wrinkles, age spots and sagging skin go away.

Trent Claus, visual effects supervisor on Prometheus (2012), Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014) and Guardians of the Galaxy (2014), took on his most formidable challenge yet when he accepted the assignment of turning old Pee-wee into young Pee-wee.  Claus said, "The most obvious thing is that the skin along the jaw in most people tends to get lower and lower and sag a little bit as you get older.  Particularly around the throat and the Adam's Apple area, you'll get a build-up of extra skin down there.  One thing we'll have to do to de-age someone is restore that elasticity and try to not only to remove the excess skin, but pull it back up to where it once was."

This was an extension of post-production beauty work.  Josh Dickey of Mashable wrote, "A recent comedy hit featured a top actress in her 40s who required beauty work on every single shot she was in — some 600 total.  With artists working around the clock, seven days a week, the beauty work alone took close to three months."

CGI experts who specialize in retouching actors have adapted plastic surgeon techniques to their work.  Logan Hill of Vulture wrote, "Today, Lola [Visual Effects] might begin with a 'digital dermabrasion, removing any age spots or imperfects,' then reduce 'eye bags,' use a 'mesh warp' technique to tighten sagging skin or bulging flab, and perform a 'digital face-lift' to trim jowls and areas like earlobes and noses that grow larger with age, while meticulously relighting every pixel."  They can even stretch a paunchy old man to make him look thinner.

The man-child comedian did not have this advantage in the old days.  Harry Langdon was already forty years old by the time that he introduced his childlike "Little Elf" character to film audiences.  The comedian knew that his character would not be accepted by audiences if he was, by every obvious physical trait, a middle-aged man.  So, to give himself a more youthful appearance, Langdon relied upon white pancake makeup to conceal the age lines in his face.  He further enhanced his looks with thick eyeliner and lip makeup.  The heavy makeup did not suit everyone's taste.  The New Yorker's Penelope Gilliatt admitted in a 1971 article on Langdon that she found the comedian's makeup weird.  She wrote, "The makeup. . . gives [Langdon] the likeness of a child who has been mooning for hours in front of a looking glass with its mother's lipstick and mascara."  But many others accepted Langdon as an eternal child.

Unfortunately, white pancake makeup could no longer mask Langdon's age once his jowls sagged and deep wrinkles lined his face.  In 1937, Langdon decided that it was time to change his character's appearance.  He got rid of his old costume and his old makeup.  He even grew a moustache to assert a new adult look.

Stan Laurel believed that wrinkles could diminish the effectiveness of the Stan and Ollie characters.  Laurel insisted for years that he and partner Oliver Hardy wear white pancake makeup to bring an ageless look to their on-screen characters.  Wikipedia reported:
Part of Laurel and Hardy's onscreen images called for their faces to be filmed flat, without any shadows or dramatic lighting.  To invoke a traditional clown-like appearance, both comedians wore a light pancake makeup on their faces, and Roach's cameramen, such as Art Lloyd and Francis Corby, were instructed to light and film a scene so that facial lines and wrinkles would be "washed out."
I thought at times that Stan and Ollie looked almost angelic in their white-face makeup.

The older they got, the heavier the makeup was applied.  It got to be too heavy for film critic John V. Brennan when it came to Saps at Sea (1940).  Brennan wrote, "The heavy makeup Laurel and Hardy employed in this film is sometimes a distraction.  Used to cover up wrinkle lines, the makeup only highlights the sad fact that our heroes were not the smooth-faced spirited youths they once were."

Laurel and Hardy in The Flying Deuces (1939)
When Laurel and Hardy joined Twentieth Century Fox in 1941, they were told by studio executives that they could no longer wear their white pancake makeup.  As a result, the comedians came across as a couple of humdrum old men in their first Fox film, Great Guns (1941).

Laurel and Hardy in Great Guns (1941)

Mike McGee, the co-founder and creative director of Framestore, said that, at present, young actors are having their faces and bodies scanned to "cryogenically preserve the digital image of their youth."  This digital information could be used in 20 or 30 years to make the actor look younger or it could be sold or leased after the actor retires.

Computer wizardry made Michael Douglas look younger in in Ant-Man (2015).

I have long imagined that, one day, a computer would be able to scan the data on a DVD to capture an actor's facial features, voice, and movements.  Allison Willmore of Buzzfeed foresees a day when we will see "a digitally-resurrected Humphrey Bogart. . . appear alongside Justin Bieber in a buddy-cop comedy."

Some are less optimistic than Willmore about the possibility of a Bogart and Bieber teaming.  James Rocchi of the BBC wrote, "It's just one step toward the day, some Hollywood futurists predict, when a deceased movie star can be brought back to life on screen by digital effects. . . Imagine a new movie 'starring' Marilyn Monroe or Cary Grant.  And yet creating a digital copy of an actor to carry an entire performance remains an elusive goal, joining flying cars and food pills as 'inevitable' future developments that always seem somehow out of reach." 

Andrew Whitehurst, visual effects supervisor on Ex Machina (2015), believes that the idea of digitally resurrecting a dead actor is "a fantasy world."  He said, "[I]t's not a question of 'Oh, the computers aren't fast enough'; it's the psychological element of the [CGI character] that you need to be able to understand, how humans work physically but also psychologically in order to create this performance – and I do not see it as being something that is even on the horizon."  He added, "We've done face-replacement for a lot of films, and you can get away with a lot in action scenes.  But as soon as you have even a little bit of dialogue, it is colossally hard to do.  It's the subtlety of human performance and human motion that is the thing that is very, very, very difficult to try and reproduce.  There's not even a question of the amount – or the feeding in – of the data.  Creating a digital human, it's not like trying to simulate an ocean, where the more data you chuck at it, the more complicated you make the simulation.  It gets as good as it gets. . ."

No digital effects expert would ever claim that their job is easy.  McGee worked four months to recreate Audrey Hepburn digitally for a Galaxy Chocolate commercial.  He said, "We found that we could create a realistic still image of Hepburn quite quickly but as soon as she has to move, turn her head or open her mouth, that's when things can start to look uncanny, when things don't look 100% real.  The human eye can spot it. . . It's all about getting the moisture in the eyes to look right, getting the eyelids to flutter correctly when someone blinks, the corner of someone's lips to turn up a little just before they smile, because it's those subtle signal and movements that make a great performance by any actor.  And to ask an animator to copy that onto a computer model and capture a human performance is really challenging."

Difficult or not, though, McGee agrees with Willmore that we will eventually be able to digitally repurpose any and all of Hollywood's stars.  He said, "As the technology develops, I see no reason that in the future we wouldn't see a CG performance by a dead actor up for a Bafta or an Oscar."

I don't see this as a morbid or sacrilegious enterprise.  My fantasy is to see every great iconic comedian get rebooted for an extravaganza like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? or It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World.

You can read more about the comic man-child in my new book.

Other Examples of CG De-aging

Ian McKellen in X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)
Jeff Bridges in TRON Legacy (2010)

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