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How 'Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny' De-Aged Harrison Ford

Near the end of Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny, Nazis attempt to pull off one of the oldest tropes in entertainment: using the movie’s titular dial, the Antikythera, to travel back to 1939 and assassinate Adolf Hitler. As their aircraft bears down on a time warp, the scientist Jürgen Voller (Mads Mikkelsen), tells Indy of his plan to install himself as the führer and win the war. In his mind, history’s “greatest moment” is “it’s end.”

To enter the past, then, is to end history. It’s Voller’s motto, but also the movie’s—a nod to the de-aging technology that has made it possible. Thanks to several tools—machine learning, CGI, other tech—80-year-old Harrison Ford spends roughly 25 minutes of the film looking like the Indiana Jones of the early 1980s. He personifies the end of history brought about by technology’s endeavor to pull people out of time, to return Ford or Bruce Willis or Robert De Niro to their younger selves. Ford’s is also a face many fear: a visual representation of a future for Hollywood in which aging or deceased actors can be resuscitated via artificial intelligence. That’s the promise. But the message that comes through in Dial of Destiny, a film that seems intensely preoccupied with how it was made, is that there is something hauntingly sad about this vision.

The tech-reincarnated Indy of the 1980s makes a poignant contrast to the Indy we see for most of the film: a retired academic, stuck in a crusty apartment and estranged from Marion Ravenwood. Dial’s story, like the Jones movies before it, focuses on an ancient MacGuffin (the Antikythera) sought by both Indy and Helena Shaw (Phoebe Waller-Bridge). She seeks to sell it for a pretty penny on the black market; he, of course, thinks it belongs in an American museum. Naturally, they form an uneasy alliance to stop Voller.

So how does de-aged Ford look? An odd mix of impressive and unreal, his face unhumanly smooth as if slathered with magic grease, glowing from within like a Stable Diffusion portrait that moves. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, who worked with Steven Spielberg on all of his Indy movies in the ’80s, recently told Empire that she hoped fans would see the movie and think someone had found footage from 40 years ago. This will probably not be the case—and not just because director James Mangold shot the film in 4K. Ford looks too perfect, his surroundings too clean. It looks like trickery, but of course you are looking for trickery.

The current discourse around AI and Hollywood would have you believe that a Disney executive fed Ford’s face into a copier and pressed a big “De-Age” button. New tech always provokes this reaction, explains Andrew Whitehurst, one of the VFX supervisors at Industrial Light & Magic who worked on Dial’s de-aging. “People assumed that we all sat down in front of a Silicon Graphics workstation in 1993, pressed D for ‘dinosaur,’ and Jurassic Park fell out of the back of the computer,” he says.

Instead, ILM used a set of tools it calls FaceSwap. Like the the purpose-built tech ILM developed to let Martin Scorsese de-age actors for The Irishman, Dial of Destiny utilized a proprietary system called Flux that used two infrared cameras perched on either side of the one filming Ford to gather information from his performance. Unlike The Irishman, it also involved what the actor called “dots on my face” that captured even more data. All of that info was then combined to create a “CG mask” that could be placed on Indy in every frame. 

To ensure Ford looked like his younger self, the ILM team used machine learning tools to scour years of footage of the actor that Lucasfilm had in its archives. The team also worked with VFX tools from Disney Research and a “smattering” of other sources to fine-tune the de-aged shots. “Each of these things is a pencil; now we have another pencil,” says Whitehurst. “So it’s just enabling us to make better choices.”

Most of the de-aged scenes take place on a train hurtling through the Bavarian countryside. Keeping the suitable “physical configuration of the face,” as ILM VFX supervisor Robert Weaver puts it, is a fiendish process involving a blue screen and hundreds of artists. Because the sequence begins at night and ends at dawn, Indy’s smirk might require a dash less shadow from one moment to the next, but that tweak could introduce a sheen that highlights new creases and makes the smirk read as a frown.

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If Indy looked creepy, it was usually a problem with his eyes; that’s where our gaze tends to settle, says Weaver. “There are idiosyncratic characteristics that each individual has with the way that they blink, the number of times they blink, how the eyes sit at rest, and those types of nuances lead to a perception,” he says. “Many times, we weren’t quite getting the right balance of the eye-opening and the shape of the overall eyes, and were continually having to reference both older footage and what was shot in camera.”

Despite the complexities, Weaver and Whitehurst argue the potential for ILM's tech is limitless. “From my perspective, there’s nothing that we can’t do,” says Weaver. “Given enough time and resources, we can accomplish anything.”

Although the machine learning used here is not nearly as far-reaching as the generative AI currently dominating the headlines, use of AI to enhance, or even create, films and TV shows is a touchy subject in Hollywood right now. The Writers Guild of America is currently on strike to keep AI out of the script-penning business. The Screen Actors Guild is currently negotiating with the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers, and the use of AI on guild members’ performances is one of the top concerns. This is probably why an ILM publicist intervened when I tried to ask Weaver and Whitehurst about the technology’s broader integration into the film industry. They did emphasize, however, that face swapping was around even before AI, used to do things like match an actor's face to that of a stunt double, and it didn't render performers obsolete. 

There is at least one job, however, the tech can take: that of another actor playing a character in their older or younger years. It’s now possible for Ford, or any other actor, to keep appearing in films and TV shows for much longer than nature intended. It’s also possible that what you’re watching in the future won’t be acted out by humans at all.

Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny seems to anticipate these criticisms. Both Voller and Indy are obsessed with the past; Voller for his aforementioned führer aspirations, Indy because of the wreck his life has become. In the end, Voller overshoots World War II by a few thousand years and the Nazis burst into the middle of the Siege of Syracuse in 212 BCE, machine-gunning the Romans from a bomber in a scene that looks like a mix between Full Metal Jacket and a cheat code from Age of Empires. (“They have dragons,” scream the Romans.) Archimedes, it’s revealed, planned the whole thing: The past is inalterable and the future is decided. The fancy gizmo was a dead end.

It’s a revelation that recalls the end of The Irishman, when FBI agents, trying to cajole De Niro’s Frank Sheeran into revealing what happened to Jimmy Hoffa, disclose that Sheeran’s lawyer is dead. “Who did it?” he asks. “Cancer,” one replies. “Everybody’s dead, Mr. Sheeran. It’s over. They’re all gone.” The de-aging saves no one, it simply hammers home that the era of De Niro and his contemporaries, the era of filmmakers like Spielberg, Scorsese, and George Lucas, is coming to an end. They are becoming history. What persists are digital ghosts: haunting and eternally youthful, skin and blood preserved in silicon.

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Updated 7-11-23, 2:40 pm EDT: This story was updated to correct the kind of tech ILM used to sort through archive images of Harrison Ford, the name of FaceSwap, the affiliation of the publicist mentioned, and details about the scene on the plane.

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