VFX supervisor Trent Claus discusses aging and de-aging the character of Dr. Hank Pym in Marvel’s new superhero feature.
Lola VFX has developed a reputation for skilfully performing digital cosmetic surgery, a fact not lost on Marvel Studios VFX supervisor Jake Morrison when assembling the group of VFX studios for work on Ant-Man. For the latest Marvel superhero adventure, Lola was tasked with a series of character aging effects. “One scene involved aging and de-aging characters in the Marvel Universe to what they should have been in the late 1980s,” explains Lola VFX supervisor Trent Claus. “Jake let us know in which direction [older or younger] the characters would go, and exactly how far. In the case of Hank Pym, played by Michael Douglas, we discussed film references from Mr. Douglas's past work that would be good targets for the age that Pym would be. Wall Street  proved to be a good reference for how old Pym should look.” The Santa Monica based company made an impression transforming the title character of Captain America: The First Avenger (2011). “With Skinny Steve, much of the work was about redefining Chris Evans’ body shape, musculature and movement,” says Claus. “But with Pym, it was much more about the qualities and texture of his skin, the shape of his face, and the location and amount of wrinkles or other signs of aging. In both cases, however, the most important factor is maintaining the actor's performance.”
“With the help of Allison Paul [VFX producer with Lola], we pulled a lot of images and clips of Mr. Douglas from that time period,” Claus continues. “It was important to get a detailed understanding of the changes in his appearance over time, and to pinpoint defining characteristics that are unique to Mr. Douglas at any age.” Lola’s robust customized facial capture technology has been used on a number of characters previously and can handle various cinematic requirements. “With our experience aging and de-aging characters like ‘Old Peggy’ in Captain America: The Winter Soldier , or going back to Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button , we have a good a handle on what assets will be required, and our facial capture rig does an excellent job of providing the flexibility to adjust on a shot-by-shot basis,” notes Claus. Despite the technological complexity of the task, an artistic sensibility was maintained. As Claus describes, “The human face is such a difficult thing to work on because people can subconsciously pick up on slight changes quickly. Technology provides a fantastic set of tools to help us along the way, but it's the skill-set and experience of the artists that create the realism and subtlety.”
An actor resembling Michael Douglas 30 years ago was used as a point of reference. “The younger stand-in [Dax Griffin] was a fantastic reference for our artists to compare with in regards to the skin texture, the way the face moves and reacts to the dialogue and the environment, as well as subtle differences between youth and age such as the way light interacts with the skin and the blood vessels underneath,” says Claus. “Additionally, we'll sometimes use digital skin-grafts to help in the de-aging process.” Retaining Michael Douglas’ performance despite the significant age gap between the two characters was paramount. Notes Claus, “We put a great deal of effort into analysing each shot for each movement, mannerism or feature that defines it as a Michael Douglas performance. We customized our workflow around those characteristics.” The transformation had to look natural. He continues, “It would be easier, for instance, to apply a skin treatment universally over the entire face, but by doing that the character can start to look airbrushed or waxy very quickly. We take a non-destructive approach in which we only alter the feature that we're targeting and try to leave the pores and surrounding features unaffected.”
“Essentially all of the work was done in compositing, so we worked closely with Jake and the rest of production early on to try and address any issues from the start,” states Claus. “They did a fantastic job of providing all the assets that we needed.” Younger actors were also aged in the film. “It was a lot of fun getting to do both at the same time! We had three characters to adjust in the scene, and some shots had all three at once.” Modifying an international figure was both a blessing and a curse. “De-aging is mostly a subtractive process while aging is primarily an additive one such as creating new wrinkles and imperfections,” Claus explains. “With a well-known actor like Michael Douglas, it can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, we had a lot of photo and video reference of what he looks like and that was helpful. But on the other hand, the audience is acutely aware of what he should look like as well, so it's very important to maintain the performance and strive for photorealism. The only solution is to use that reference as much as possible.”
Claus concludes, “We had a lot of fun working with the 1989 Carson, Peggy and Pym. Now we're excited to see what the characters are up to in the present! We always enjoy working with Marvel and we're big fans of the films ourselves, so it’s really been an honour.”
Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for sites such as the CGSociety, 3DTotal, Live for Films and Flickering Myth; he is a big fan of Raiders of the Lost Ark, Batman: The Animated Series, The Hobbit, Studio Ghibli, and Peter Weir.