A believable, fully digital human is still considered among the most difficult tasks in visual effects. “Digital humans are still very hard, but it’s not unachievable. You only see that level of success at the top-level companies,” explains Chris Nichols, a director at Chaos Group Labs and key member of the Digital Human League, a research and development group. He adds that this approach can be “extraordinarily expensive. It involves teams of people and months of work, research and development and a lot of revisions. They can look excellent if you involve the right talent.”
The VFX team must first create the “asset,” effectively a movable model of the human. Darren Hendler, head of VFX house Digital Domain’s digital human group, estimates that this could cost from $500,000 to $1 million to create. Then, he suggests, producers could expect to pay anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 per shot, depending on the individual requirements of the performance in the scene.
More often, filmmakers use what has been broadly described as “digital cosmetics,” which could be thought of as a digital makeup applications — for instance, removing wrinkles for smoother skin. This means that age is becoming less of an issue when casting an actor. “It’s safer and cheaper than plastic surgery,” notes Nichols. Marvel’s Avengers: Endgame involved the creation of roughly 200 such de-aging shots, with work on actors such as Robert Downey Jr. and Chris Evans, to enable its time-traveling story.