Ignore Deep Fakes at Your Own Risk

The future of the moving image: Seeing is no longer believing

Deep Fakes

 Lifewire / Ashley Nicole DeLeon

Never have I been more deeply entertained or freaked out by the same thing. Deep Fake technology, the instantly viral video face-swapping genre that’s overrunning YouTube and throwing our celeb-obsessed zeitgeist into a parallel broken mirror universe is just a whisper of what’s sure to become a chorus of entertainment and information change.

What’s real is mutable. What’s fact could be fiction. What’s dead could be living and what’s living can be replaced.

Earlier this week, I watched a new video of Actor Bill Hader talking to David Letterman. Hader is young and Letterman is still doing his Late Show, so this is archival footage, but even then, Hader had a gift for mimicry. This video edit by Ctrl Shift Face takes that impersonation to another dimension.

Bill Hader as Tom Cruise
Bill Hader transforms into Tom Cruise. Ctrl Shift Face

As Hader recounts a script table reading with Tom Cruise for the film Tropic Thunder (Hader has a small part), his face literally transforms into Tom Cruise’s face. It’s not a sudden shift, but a smooth transformation that occurs each time Hader drops into Cruise’s voice. The Cruise/Hader face is as expressive as Hader’s. In the middle of all this, Hader also briefly impersonates actor Seth Rogen and, for a beat, his face transforms into Rogen’s.

This Isn’t Your First Deep Fake, Is It?

This wasn’t the first Deep Fake video I’d watched. In fact, I’ve been collecting them for weeks, thinking I might have something to say on the phenomenon. Then, on Thursday, VizLegal CEO Gavin Sheridan stumbled on the Hader video and posted it to Twitter, where it went viral. For some, this was the first time they had ever seen or heard of a Deep Fake. Some were so stunned they thought Hader was either astonishingly gifted or a literal shape shifter.

Sheridan echoed many of my concerns, wondering how this technology will be weaponized, perhaps not realizing that it’s already been done, but with less technical finesse. The Nancy Pelosi video in which she is seen to be shaking almost uncontrollably as she delivers a speech is a carefully edited version in which Pelosi perhaps exhibited a slight wobble.

Let’s Find the Deep Fake Creators

Most of the Deep Fakes I’ve watched were designed for entertainment purposes. Ctrl Shift Face may be the most popular or well-known Deep Fake producer. However, he shies away from public scrutiny and apparently creates videos purely for Patreon support. I’m a fan of Corridor Crew, a collection of VFX professionals and YouTube stars who make special effects videos, critique movie special effects, fix the cheap FX in some old films (see The Scorpion King), and occasionally make Deep Fakes.

Evan Ferrante as Tom Cruise
Evan Ferrante as Tom Cruise.  Corridor Crew

I first stumbled on their work when I saw their video, “We Made the Best Deep Fake on the Internet.” In it they turned a Tom Cruise impersonator, Evan Ferrante, who goes by the name “Not Tom Cruise” on Twitter, into Tom Cruise. Cruise’s decades-long run as the biggest movie star on the planet has made him a favorite target of Deep Fakers, but I have to say it was a stroke of brilliance to put Cruise’s face on someone who could so ably look, sound, and move like Cruise.

Not Keanu Reeves
Not Keanu Reeves.  Corridor Crew

In another video, Corridor Crew created a fake viral video staring a Deep-Faked Keanu Reeves. In it, another body double who could also ably ape Keanu’s moves and voice, confronts and then subdues a robber.

Corridor Crew’s work both comforted and terrified me. I was terrified because the work was so good and I was stunned to see how easily they could put their manufactured Cruise face not just on Ferrante but over their own faces as well. I was comforted a bit, though, by the amount of time and work it takes to make a high-quality Deep Fake.

Listen, These Fakes Aren’t Easy

The reason Deep Fakes are so good is because they’re not just another person’s face slapped on top of someone else’s. Instead, they’re more like life masks that anchor to every facial muscle and move with the original face underneath.

The only way to make this work is with artificial intelligence that can be trained to recreate the face mask and make it do things the original face may never have said or done. Creators like Corridor Crew train their Deep Fake systems with as many original facial expressions as they can find. With an actor like Cruise or Reeves, there’s a ton of source material readily available online. The key is grabbing all the different expressions.

The system uses that information to build a simulation of the face, an incredibly life-like and totally animated Tom Cruise face mask. The software algorithm not only manipulates the face mask in a realistic manner but does so in perfect sync with the live face that’s underneath it.

This is how Hader becomes Cruise or, as he does in a more recent video, Arnold Schwarzenegger. The mask is trained to follow and adjust. If it lapses, the programmers can go back and do more training, so it better understands how, say, Cruise’s face would move in a certain expressive situation.

And for all of this to be convincing, they need massive amounts of computing power, time, and high-enough resolutions to make a high-quality Deep Fake. During one video, Corridor Crew brought in a brand new, powerful dual GPU system just to handle a Deep Fake render.

There’s Lots of Garbage Deep Fakes, For Now

So, it’s not trivial, which is perhaps why, aside from all the garbage fakes that have appeared on YouTube and Reddit, including the horrifying Deep Fake porn films that were pasting celebrity faces on porn star bodies, there aren’t tons of mind-bending, hard-to-detect Deep Fakes out there—and they haven't, to my recollection, migrated from YouTube to your local news (as news). Yet, as with all things technology, this is but a temporary situation.

Eventually, the high-quality Deep Fake hardware and software will shrink to smartphone size. Someday, you’ll be able to train your phone on your face, or someone else’s, shoot or download a video, replace one or more faces with yours or someone else’s face, and post online all within a matter of minutes. That’s when things will get really crazy.

I asked Ferrante (“Not Tom Cruise”) via Twitter DM if he’s at all concerned about the long-term impact of Deep Fake technology. 

“Absolutely,” he wrote. “I’d categorize the work I’ve done for Deep Fake, one with Corridor Digital and two with Ctrl Shift Face (American Psycho), as ‘Cautionary Entertainment/Edutainment.’ It’s both mesmerizing and deeply unsettling. But it’s all in good fun for now. However, when it crosses over into the political realm, that’s when we have to have our guard up and be vigilant.”

Ferrante has a point. It’s all in good fun until a dead star is reanimated on top of someone else’s body (too late), a contractually-obligated actor who tries to quit is kept in a film against their wishes, a deep fake sex tape upends someone’s career, or a 2020 Presidential Candidate is shown marching in a White Nationalist rally or saying that all sugar products should be banned. None of this is wild conjecture, it’s our Deep Fake future. The only defense is knowledge, awareness, and maybe mice.