Hollywood has famously had better luck using makeup to make young actors look old — like Russell Crowe in A Beautiful Mind — than making old actors look young. But the ability to manipulate images digitally could prove to be a fountain of youth for some.
In TRON: Legacy, which topped the box office on its opening weekend, 61-year-old Jeff Bridges plays Kevin Flynn, at his natural age, and a computerized avatar called "Clu," who hasn't aged since around the time he was first created in the original TRON in 1982.
Clu bears Bridges' face, altered to make him about 35 years old, but it's grafted onto a younger actor's body.
While it may be eerie for audiences to see a new performance from a younger-looking Bridges, it was no less strange for the actor himself.
"It's bizarre. It's great news for me, because now it means I can play myself at any age," Bridges said.
There have been digitally created faces before, even on fully animated bodies. But no movie yet has done what the Walt Disney Co.'s TRON: Legacy attempts — putting an actor's rejuvenated face on a younger body, and in 3-D no less.
"With Jeff, we can go rent Against All Odds or The Fabulous Baker Boys or Starman," visual effects supervisor Eric Barba said. "All this makes it incredibly difficult."
The filmmakers did not want Bridges' Clu looking precisely as he did in 1982. The idea was that some time had elapsed, and Clu was meant to look like Bridges in Against All Odds, which came out two years after the original TRON.
"In our mythology, Clu was created after the events of the first film," director Joseph Kosinski said.
To make Clu, filmmakers made a silicone mold of Bridges' face and painted it like real flesh. They took multiple photos, put them into a computer and gave him a "digital facelift" that took out wrinkles, tightened the skin and shrunk down his nose and ears.
He then performed a series of facial movements, such as raising his outer left eyebrow or lifting his cheek. Those were recorded by camera and computerized in 3-D.
Finally, when Bridges acted in scenes as Clu, he wore a helmet with four tiny cameras pointed at his face. Dozens of dots on his face acted as reference points for the computer.
"Sometimes I could be in my street clothes and just have this weird helmet on," Bridges said.
The captured expressions are replicated on his younger-looking self. Actor John Reardon mimicked Bridges in later takes and had his face swapped out later.
And who knows? Their hard work could help other aging actors reprise roles they never had in the first place.
"I think this technology opens up really interesting opportunities for actors," Kosinski said.