LOS ANGELES — Johnny Depp is 53 years old but he doesn’t look a day over 26 in the new “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie — at least for a few moments. There was no plastic surgeon involved, heavy makeup or archival footage used to take the actor back to his boyish “Cry Baby” face, however. It’s all post-production visual effects, and after a decade of refining the process since Brad Pitt ran the gamut of time in “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” it’s becoming commonplace in major Hollywood movies.
Depp is just the latest mega-star to get the drastic de-aging treatment on screen, joining the ranks of Robert Downey Jr. (in “Captain America: Civil War”), Michael Douglas (in “Ant-Man”), Kurt Russell (in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2”) and scores of others getting digital facelifts to play younger versions of themselves. In the old days, a lucky unknown lookalike (or look enough alike) could have scored the part of young Jack Sparrow or Tony Stark. Now, if the film has the budget, the stars get to have it both ways — and audiences get a nostalgic flashback.
Lola Visual Effects is responsible for Depp’s transformation, and most of the Marvel tricks, which have included making Chris Evans scrawny for the original “Captain America” and Hayley Atwell some 70 years older for the sequel.
Lola was the pioneer behind “Benjamin Button,” too, and sells their services to all the major studios. It’s one of a handful of vendors that have gotten in the so-called “beauty work” business. It’s often meant to go unnoticed (like removing a blemish), and is generally buried under mountains of confidentiality agreements.
In the case of Depp, and most of Lola’s de-aging work, the process starts with capturing a performance from the actor and then manipulating it. This isn’t always necessary — “Rogue One” recreated the late Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin without him, and…