With the belief that Hollywood stars need never age on screen, or at least can do so more gracefully, Canadian visual effects studio Monsters Aliens Robots Zombies (a.k.a. MARZ) is close to commercially rolling out its Vanity AI artificial intelligence-driven program that cosmetically alters and enhances an actor’s skin and hairline in real-time or ages and de-ages actors for scenes set in the past or future.
The studio’s secret of eternal youth reached with algorithms was used for recent visual effects work on Marvel’s Ant-Man and the Wasp: Quantumania, including for a wig fix for Kathryn Newton, who plays Cassie Lang, the young daughter of Paul Rudd’s character Scott Lang, a.k.a. shrinking hero Ant-Man.
De-aging technology has already been used on Hollywood actors ranging from Robert De Niro in The Irishman to Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. MARZ with Vanity AI joins a growing field of A.I.-powered de-aging tools developed at VFX studios or by tech companies such as Metaphysic — which is involved in the de-aging of Tom Hanks, Robin Wright and additional cast members for Robert Zemeckis’ upcoming Miramax movie Here.
On the Ant-Man sequel, there was no need for a major digital facelift for the teenage Cassie, but Vanity AI did allow a number of paint and beauty fixes on the Marvel movie, recalls Cristian Camaroschi, visual effects supervisor at MARZ. Absent AI-driven tech, he says the process would have taken longer, with artists doing the computer touch-ups in-house or outsourced to another company.
“You might wait a week sometimes for a shot to come back to you. Then you review it to see if it’s right. If not, you send it back,” Camaroschi said. On Ant-Man, MARZ used Vanity AI to complete cosmetic fixes on up to five of its own shots a day, depending on the length of a shot and how many frames it held, he reported.
“That dramatically increased the turnaround speed of those shots,” Camaroschi recalled.
MARZ co-founder Lon Molnar recalls an earlier Marvel project laden with VFX and big-name stars that his studio worked on, 2021’s WandaVision, for the origins of Vanity AI.
Some of the TV series footage in post production had Paul Bettany with tracking markers all over his face and neck. Molnar said artists painting out the tracking markers faced too much time and expense per shot, so MARZ turned to an in-house machine learning team that used AI to develop a way to remove the markers.
They had to come up with algorithms that could recognize artifacts and isolate and remove them and be able to consistently do so over a series of frames and shots. From that research and development came Vanity AI, software that does a host of tasks from cosmetic touch-ups to aging and de-aging.
The aim is that Hollywood actors can, for example, say goodbye to concealer make-up to disguise under-eye bags. “An artist can sit down and on one frame mask the areas we want to fix. So let’s say its under-eye bags. You can make that area look proper with that one frame and (Vanity AI) basically extrapolates that not only across the shot but sequences of shots,” Molnar said of dramatically raising the volume of cosmetic fixes made possible.
And AI-powered cosmetics in VFX work for actors whose appearance is part of their brand and want computer touch-ups or face-lifts to look their best. “Some of this might be contractual obligations. Some of it could just be removing a blemish, even on a teenager. We’re using it on different projects in film and TV,” Molnar said as earlier versions of Vanity AI were employed by artists on Spider-Man: No Way Home, Stranger Things 4, Gaslit, First Ladies and Being the Ricardos.
And besides the wig fix on the Ant-Man sequel, MARZ artists focusing on Cassie did a great deal of work to connect audiences to a tiny character in an expansive quantum realm. To portray a teenage hero eager to fight and be in the middle of the action and needing to shrink and grow to do so, MARZ artists turned to the Marvel franchise’s tried and true ‘disco trail’ effect.
With that photo-realistic effect, Newton’s character is seen virtually discarding prior selves as she moves on screen, which allows the audience to keep track of her whereabouts in the quantum realm. But Camaroschi recalls his MARZ team having their work cut out for them not so much when an insect-sized Cassie in a profile shot crossed the screen but when she ran head first to the camera.
That was, for example, key to a pivotal scene. Initially, the disco trail effect clumsily doubled over Cassie’s character, creating potential visual noise for the audience.
So telegraphing or tracking Cassie’s movements with visual echoes as she leaps at the camera had to be done digitally, as it could not be captured on camera, Camaroschi recounted. After all, a movie isn’t a comic book where Ant-Man can shrink in a single cartoon panel.
Fortunate for MARZ, the creative license to add in digitally what wouldn’t work in photography was fine by Marvel. “It became a good collaborative process, where we partnered up with them to find the best solutions that were visually pleasing, as well as cost-effective for them,” Camaroschi adds.