For HBO’s original series The Righteous Gemstones, VFX house Gradient Effects de-aged John Goodman using its proprietary Shapeshifter tool, an AI-assisted tool that can turn back the time on any video footage. With Shapeshifter, Gradient sidestepped the Uncanny Valley to shave decades off Goodman for an entire episode, delivering nearly 30 minutes of film-quality VFX in six weeks.
In the show’s fifth episode, “Interlude,” viewers journey back to 1989, a time when the Gemstone empire was still growing and Eli’s wife, Aimee-Leigh, was still alive. But going back also meant de-aging Goodman for an entire episode, something never attempted before on television. Gradient accomplished it using Shapeshifter, which allows artists to “reshape” an individual frame and the performers in it and then extend those results across the rest of a shot.
Shapeshifter worked by first analyzing the underlying shape of Goodman’s face. It then extracted important anatomical characteristics, like skin details, stretching and muscle movements. With the extracted elements saved as layers to be reapplied at the end of the process, artists could start reshaping his face without breaking the original performance or footage. Artists could tweak additional frames in 3D down the line as needed, but they often didn’t need to, making the de-aging process nearly automated.
“Shapeshifter an entirely new way to de-age people,” says Olcun Tan, owner and visual effects supervisor at Gradient Effects. “While most productions are limited by time or money, we can turn around award-quality VFX on a TV schedule, opening up new possibilities for shows and films.”
Traditionally, de-aging work for film and television has been done in one of two ways: through filtering (saves time, but hard to scale) or CG replacements (better quality, higher cost), which can take six months to a year. Shapeshifter introduces a new method that not only preserves the actor’s original performance, but also interacts naturally with other objects in the scene.
“One of the first shots of ‘Interlude’ shows stage crew walking in front of John Goodman,” describes Tan. “In the past, a studio would have recommended a full CGI replacement for Goodman’s character because it would be too hard or take too much time to maintain consistency across the shot. With Shapeshifter, we can just reshape one frame and the work is done.”
This is possible because Shapeshifter continuously captures the face, including all of its essential details, using the source footage as its guide. With the data being constantly logged, artists can extract movement information from anywhere on the face whenever they want, replacing expensive motion-capture stages, equipment and makeup teams.