Deepfakes: What Does This Mean for Cinema?
Chances are you’ve heard of the Nicolas Cage videos that replace famous or familiar movie scenes with the kooky actor’s likeness. Chances are you’ve just heard of the viral video where Bill Hader transforms into (and from) Tom Cruise. If not, then allow me to introduce you to the phenomenon known as deepfake: a technology that allows a person to say and do things they never did. How this works is an application transfers a set face to a source body, replaces the face (or other part, but usually faces are used), and presto. You have a disturbing creation of a real being’s fictitious happenings.
Deepfakes are a tricky topic currently. Firstly, they can be used for nefarious reasons (like creating fake media clips of politicians saying horrible things as a means of blackmail). Secondly, they can be used for fetish reasons. I will not expand further. Thirdly, they are the means of a number of recent videos that have people either laughing uncontrollably or shaking in their books. Let’s refer back to the Hader/Cruise example. YouTube user Ctrl Shift Face (a clever title, given the medium) creates funny clips using deepface applications. Not only are they a master at this (you’ll notice in the clip that the “face” drifts between a number of different people with ease, whereas most examples just have one face used as a sole replacement), but they are bringing awareness to something that can be misused. Now the general public knows this exists. Now, they can be warned.
Credit: Ctrl Shift Face
Notice in this clip that the technology isn’t quite perfected. You can notice blurring around the chin area, as well as the smudging around the subject’s mouth. Still, at first glance, this is a shockingly realistic transmogrification taking place. Deepface may be popular now, but it’s been around for a number of years. According to videos (like the one by Bloomberg below), actually doing this is much easier than many of us would imagine. In fact, we may have been subject to believing a false video in the past without realizing it (how would we know?). I can’t explain how the technology works, or its current uprise quite like the YouTube video below, so I will let it do its thing succinctly.
So, what does this mean for cinema? Personally, I think this can be a major innovation. It can solve the same problems that make up and CGI have been fixing for years, but maybe even better down the road. This includes creating humanoid beings, de-aging characters, making stunt double scenes look even more convincing, and more. The possibilities are endless. The current issue is that the technology isn’t quite good enough yet, but it is still something that Hollywood has expressed interest in.
Also, think about it. The main issue CGI continues to have (no matter how good the effects are) is that the mimicked movement through frame rate is never flush with the movement of how humans or live beings work. Deepfake would fix that. In case you haven’t seen in the videos supplied, the application simply latches an uploaded image onto a host face, and it lets the source do all of the work. That means the movements are identical to the source material. That means the movements will be lifelike. That, to me, is the biggest sign of hope here. On that note, one of the first common uses for deepfake technology (outside of the dangerous and the perverted uses) was to fix the young Princess Leia in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (who was de-aged by being a completely CGI created being).
Okay, so, the match up isn’t perfect. You can see the miss-matching on Leia’s forehead, for starters. Take into consideration that the source used was the CGI Leia, and that is probably the main issue here. For the most part, a quick online experiment was done more quickly (and 100% cheaper) than the work many artists plugged hours into. Does the deepfake Leia not look much better than the CGI one, despite still being flawed? This is only the beginning.
Unfortunately, I do not have complete faith in the human race to not use this technology for the wrong reasons (be careful even looking this stuff up), since many great innovations have been used with bad intentions since the very dawn of humanity. What I can do, however, is be positive and look ahead with how this can change cinema. It won’t completely replace makeup or even performance art, because the application feeds off of what is most important with special effects: the human element. It can become the blurred line between practical and digital (like how CGI currently is). We will have to wait to see which films heavily utilize deepface technology, though. The guinea pig films may even be terrible (either now, or they will age very poorly). The point is the possibilities are there. Deepfake can be used to frame innocent people, skew political biases, or create obsessive fetishistic realities. It can also be yet another brilliant use of movie magic, and that’s what excites me, personally.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.