“The technology is the same — the artists have just gotten much better at it.”
'Captain Marvel': How “Digital Plastic Surgeons” De-Aged Samuel L. Jackson
“The technology is the same — the artists have just gotten much better at it.”
Watching Captain Marvel, it’s easy to forget that the middle-aged Nick Fury featured in the 1990s version of Marvel’s Cinematic Universe is actually being played by a 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson. The visual effects on display here are impressive, but that hasn’t always been the case. How did Marvel Studios pull off what’s probably the most impressive feat of digital de-aging in cinematic history? Well, for starters, it really did help that Jackson looks incredible for a man his age.
“We were very fortunate that Sam Jackson’s a very youthful-looking man with amazing complexion,” Marvel Studios visual effects supervisor Chris Townsend tells Inverse. “He doesn’t look that much different than he did 25 years ago.”
Despite Jackson’s naturally youthful appearance, Townsend and the rest of the movie’s VFX teams still had plenty of work cut out for them in de-aging Nick Fury, from designing his facial hair (they went with none to make things easier) to figuring out which real-life ‘90s versions of Jackson would inspire this character (sadly, Pulp Fiction’s Jules Winnfield didn’t make the cut).
Here’s the inside story of how Marvel’s de-aging technology evolved over the years to give us the most convincing version yet in Captain Marvel.
"We had to add a little bit of gray hair to the wig to make it feel more natural. Imagine adding gray hair to make someone look younger!” — Chris Townsend
Townsend has worked with Marvel Studios for the better part of eight years on what he refers to as the “youthening” process, starting with Captain America: The First Avenger and moving through Iron Man 3, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, and, now, Captain Marvel. He’s worked in VFX for over 20 years and contributed to films like Mission: Impossible, The Lost World: Jurassic Park, and all three Star Wars prequels.
Though he wasn’t involved with Ant-Man or Ant-Man and the Wasp, both of which also used de-aging technology, as a visual effects supervisor, Townsend has played a key role in the evolution of the technology that’s become potent enough to transform the 70-year-old Samuel L. Jackson into the lead role of a much younger Nick Fury.
For Captain Marvel, Townsend worked directly with a team of 10 to 12 coordinators and production assistants to oversee as many as 1,500 visual effects artists. Townsend co-ordinated with three separate VFX studios to work on de-aging Jackson and Clark Gregg, who reprises his role as a young Agent Coulson. Lola VFX did most of the digital de-aging — around 500 individual shots. Rising Sun Pictures in Australia and Screen Scene in Ireland also worked on a number of scenes. Eleven other studios worked on visual effects ranging from Skrull transformations to Carol Danvers’ photon blasts. Townsend says anywhere between 50 to 300 individual people might work on a single shot.
In terms of digital de-aging, perhaps the most important team member was Janelle Croshaw, who is credited as an additional VFX supervisor on Captain Marvel. “She’s worked on many different things, like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” Townsend says. “She has a wealth of experience with facial effects.”
Croshaw also worked as visual effects supervisor on 2010’s TRON: Legacy, another prominent case of digital de-aging that made Jeff Bridges look decades younger — the technology’s clearly come a long way since then. Townsend credits Croshaw as “the main one responsible for the youthening work and the de-aging of Sam Jackson and Clark Gregg” by handling the “day-to-day.”
An Abridged History of the “Youthening” Technique
Lola VFX first used this de-aging technique in 2006’s maligned X-Men: The Last Stand to portray younger versions of Xavier and Magneto, but it became more widely recognized with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in 2008, which relied heavily on the technology to show Brad Pitt as the main character who aged in reverse.
Townsend calls Lola’s VFX artists “digital plastic surgeons” who’ve honed their de-aging skills over the years. “They’re amazing and their understanding of the physiology of the face and how it ages over time is incredible.”
Trent Claus is the Lola VFX visual effects supervisor, the direct link between the team that does all of the painstaking work and the folks at Marvel, namely Townsend and Croshaw.
We’ve seen Lola VFX de-age Michael Douglas’ Hank Pym in Ant-Man and its sequel, and the same process was applied in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 with Kurt Russell’s Ego. There was also a scene of young Tony Stark early in Captain America: Civil War.
In a 2017 interview with fxguide about de-aging Kurt Russell in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Claus explained that Russell served as the “baseplate,” wearing nothing in terms of VFX makeup other than a “Farrah Fawcett wig” and some tracking dots. For that, they used Russell’s performance in Used Cars (1980) as a reference point, along with a body double that mimicked each take.
“Every shot is Kurt Russell,” Claus says. “We never used the other younger actor for wide full body shots or even when his face is away from the camera as they run down into the bushes.”
According to Claus, one of the greatest challenges in terms of de-aging a subject is the subconscious gesture we make as we get older. “One thing we fight a lot is that the upper eyelids start to sag over the eye balls as you get older,” he says. “The natural tendency is to raise your eyebrows as you get older — just so you can see better. This is something people do unconsciously.”
The subject winds up looking surprised or confused. This is one of the many subtle adjustments that needs to be made. “You can’t just remove the wrinkles, you have to rebuild the musculature and the way the skin moves against the throat,” Claus added.
According to Townsend, using a body double to repeat scenes also serves several purposes.
“In the past, we have a body double mimic the performance to use that as a reference for the size of pores, how the light falls on the skin, the tautness of the jaw,” Townsend says. “As we age, we all grow a little, sag a little — gravity takes hold. Sometimes bits and pieces of the human body are there that you can’t just manipulate into place.”
When that happens, the trick becomes grafting pieces from each take to manufacture a composite frame by frame in 2D that looks as realistic as possible. Attempting it in 3D often jeopardized the actor’s performance, rendering it unrealistic and only a half-step away from total CG.
“Sometimes we’d skin-graft in a 2D approach, literally taking part of someone’s face and compositing it over to the real actor’s face,” Townsend explained. “We’re often having to pull and push skin around, manipulating it in such a way that reflects aging.” Other times, the process involves a side-by-side comparison and tweaking aspects of the older actor’s face to resemble the younger double.
All of this work is done frame by frame (at 24 frames per second) compositing in a 2D environment. “It’s effectively working in a tool like Photoshop that’s proprietary, where they manipulate edges of the image,” Townsend says, “squishing them in to make something look thinner or smoother — all of the things you do on magazine covers in terms of air-brushing and slimming.”
The process was identical for making swole Chris Evans look like he’s 5’4” and 94 pounds in Captain America, another VFX project that Townsend oversaw for the 2011 film. “The performance we saw was always Chris Evans, but there’s always a reference take involved,” Townsend explained. “Occasionally we did use parts of the much smaller actor’s body, but usually his was just slimmed down to look like the double. The technology was essentially the same thing.”
Townsend explained that even though the computing power and tools used for the process have gotten better in the last eight years, he says it’s remains mostly unchanged: “The technology is the same — the artists have just gotten much better at it.”
How Marvel Made Samuel L. Jackson Look Half His Age
How much more challenging is it to sustain the process for an entire movie as opposed to a short sequence or flashback? The short answer is: a lot.
"We went back as early as Pulp Fiction and decided we didn’t want that specific look.” — Chris Townsend
The first step involves coming up with how Nick Fury would’ve looked in 1995. Townsend and Lola VFX knew from the script that Captain Marvel would explain how Fury lost his left eye, so they’d be establishing the character’s look before he started wearing an eye patch and had scarring on his forehead and face.
Is Fury already balding at this point in his life? Does he have the goatee yet? Maybe he wears glasses? They looked to real-life Samuel L. Jackson circa 1995, when the actor was still 47, for inspiration and answers.
“We studied many films of that era in the mid-’90s to figure out what look we wanted,” Townsend says. “Jackson was obviously such a prolific actor. We went back as early as Pulp Fiction and decided we didn’t want that specific look. We came up with three we particularly liked him in: The Negotiator, Die Hard With a Vengeance, and Sphere.”
To make life easier for the VFX teams, they quickly decided to do without facial hair and choose a hairstyle that was tightly cropped and simple. “Our preferred method is that the filmmakers get the hair to 100 percent of what they want on set,” Trent Claus told fxguide about de-aging in Guardians 2. “Because it is much easier to work around the practical hair than try and create 3D hair.” This minimalistic approach also made practical sense for Nick Fury and made it easier to manipulate the features.
“We tried it initially with a wig that was totally dark, and it looked so odd, almost like it was sprayed on,” Townsend says. “We had to add a little bit of gray hair to the wig to make it feel more natural. Imagine adding gray hair to make someone look younger!”
Townsend also worked closely with Jackson’s makeup artist Jake Garber on how to best plan for the de-aging process. “We wanted to keep him as realistic as possible, to keep it minimal.” Manipulating skin that already doesn’t look real in VFX editing software is just going to make everything look even more unnatural.
“We always say to makeup, ‘Give us everything we can, but don’t step on the natural features,’” Townsend explained. Too many alterations from the natural face can interrupt “the emotional reaction and the subtlety of the performance.”
The most significant alteration Garber devised for makeup was to tape small parts of Jackson’s face to tighten the skin. The rest of hair and makeup was pretty minimal, aside from a specific pattern of tracking dots applied to Jackson’s face every morning.
In many interviews, especially set visits like the one conducted by Screen Rant, Jackson joked around when asked about the dots on his face, saying things like, “Yeah, I’m trying to join the Wakanda tribe, and this is my initiation rite.” In reality, Townsend explained those dots were painted onto the more rigid features of the face so they could track his features in 3D while they were working in a 2D space. It becomes vital for maintaining consistency in scenes with movement.
“They put the wig on me, and they put dots on my face, so it kind of felt like I was in Wakanda,” Jackson reiterated to Express. “They started exploring with different things that I had done before so that they could use facial expressions that were already there. Fortunately for me, I’d done like three movies before this one.”
Not only did Lola look to classic Jackson movies from the real-life ‘90s, but they also obviously referenced the older Nick Fury from previous Marvel films.
“We challenged Lola at the beginning to do a couple tests using the body double and not using it to see if we could get away with it,” Townsend says. Using those several film references from the ‘90s, Lola was able to come up with test footage they deemed virtually indistinguishable from compositing with a body double.
The painstaking work of the VFX artists involves youthening the subject by thinning the jaw and neck, lifting the eyes, tightening skin, smoothing creases, and even adjusting overall posture.
Because they’re working in what’s essentially a 2D environment, making the alterations consistent in sequences with motion proves difficult. “The real challenge is in making sure features are sliding across the face as they move,” Townsend says. “No one wants to see eyes sliding across the face.”
Ultimately, the process involved hundreds of people from around the world digitally editing almost a thousand individual shots frame by frame to convince the audience that Nick Fury was closer to 40 instead of Jackson’s 70.
“I can’t stress enough how it’s incredible care and attention taken by everybody involved, particularly the artists sitting at their desks painstakingly going through frame by frame,” Townsend says. “There’s no magic bullet for this.”
This probably isn’t the last time we’ve seen the technology to de-age an actor for a role, especially in wider cinematic universes like the MCU. In fact, Trent Claus and Lola VFX are credited on Avengers: Endgame.
Could we see more youthening as part of a flashback in the upcoming Marvel film? Townsend wouldn’t tell us, but based on everything we know so far, it certainly seems possible.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.