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Why actors' faces in some new films look so waxy?


Petr Kvapil
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I noticed recently that actors in some new movies look almost like CG characters. What is going on here? Is this some kind of digital retouching? It looks very unnatural.

Here are some examples:

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCLoZI-FOYA

Pam & Tommy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJgH4y3raWc

Nightmare Alley
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q81Yf46Oj3s

vlcsnap-2022-02-14-11h46m35s684.jpg

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I don't know about the others, but Nightmare Alley used Signature Primes with Alexa 65, which is possibly the sharpest lens/camera combination available now. Cinematographer Dan Laustsen used a behind-the-lens diffusion filter to knock back some of that hyper-sharpness, so maybe it's a combination of that incredible detail with in-camera diffusion that makes things seem a bit like CGI. From reading interviews with Laustsen I don't think there was too much post manipulation.

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Could it be they're sometimes using AI faces over stand-ins now for retakes? We've seen it with Paul Walker and Mark Hamill now, imagine how many other times these studios preferred to keep it under the rug.

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Potentially metamerism - the lack of spectral content from a few modern LED fixtures leads to a smaller gamut of colours being resolved (less energy/information = less colours). 

Note, this isn't just with LED fixtures but most spiky spectrums. LED's are just potentially spiky and discontinuous which does emphasise this effect. The camera package and more importantly the spectral curves of the camera lining up with the spectral distribution of the fixture also has impact. As then you have less information being emitted and then the camera not even capturing that information. 

Edited by Gabriel Devereux
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I would not call modern LEDs "spiky", as even the cheap ones now have a rather continuous spectrum. They are much better than fluorescent lamp (definitely spiky). However modern white LEDs share the same drawbacks:

- lack of deep red. By the way, this also means "lack of infra-red", or "lack of heat", which is the very reason for their high efficiency. You cannot have it all.

- cyan gap: even expensive LEDs find it hard to produce light around 480nm

- blue peak: this indeed can be described as a spike

This is a totally different story if one use RGB LEDs to recreate white. Week-end warrior DJs do that, but I very much doubt that is used in movie production.

Maybe the waxy aspect results from make-up as well ? Or too high compression ? Or some post-processing in VLC ?

Edited by Nicolas POISSON
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14 hours ago, Petr Kvapil said:

I noticed recently that actors in some new movies look almost like CG characters. What is going on here? Is this some kind of digital retouching? It looks very unnatural.

Here are some examples:

The Lord of the Rings: The Rings of Power
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OCLoZI-FOYA

Pam & Tommy
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sJgH4y3raWc

Nightmare Alley
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q81Yf46Oj3s

vlcsnap-2022-02-14-11h46m35s684.jpg

I think it is mostly the combination of certain kind of makeup and the modern lighting styles which tend to necessitate using very fast lighting setups and maybe a bit harder lighting like seen in the examples. 

By my experience the lighting methods have changed A LOT in the last 10 years and currently most of the productions seem to be pretty limited in what they can do lighting wise, needing to rely on quick OK working solutions instead of finessing anything to perfection.  The main reason being that the production dept says no to anything which takes more time than the fastest possible solution (in most low and mid range productions the fastest can be a battery powered led panel slightly diffused because it can move immediately to the position to provide "good enough" key light for the talent. For example a skypanel with a softbox and rolling :) )

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What I mean is: 

lighting with LED lights does not always look like crap. But when it does, you simply don't have any time to correct it because you are already using the fastest lighting setups possible (allowed by using LED units) and the scheduling is made accordingly to expect that nothing needs to be time consumingly relit if the lighting does not work with the makeup or does not look great.

LEDs are a pretty good alternative to fluorescent units and for the smaller HMI units.  Their spectrum is much worse than on real tungsten lights and in most cases it really shows to some extent. Big HMI is not possible to replace with LED because you can't get such a small pointy super powerful source using a LED. but on the 0 to 1.2k range the LEDs are a very good alternative to HMI nowadays and make it much faster to setup stuff without compromising the spectrum much

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The Lord of the Rings tv series had a pretty big budget (over $400+ million for season 1). I dont think they used some quick solutions. The faces look CG to me. There is almost no skin texture. Maybe it is the heavy make up.

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The point isn’t always to look natural. It looks like noise reduction because of the lack of noise and the softness. But what’s the alternative — noisy sharp faces? I don’t think there’s anything wrong with this look, it just doesn’t look like traditional film, that’s all. It’s stylized in a digital way instead of a classic film way.

But I’m sure there has also been some loss of detail from streaming compression.

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They've been making things soft forever, in the past they'd use filters or even petroleum jelly on the lens to soften it up when they'd shoot women for instance. It's a very common thing, I don't think digital has altered this premise, just maybe because everyone is so use to seeing 4k sharpness, they notice it more? 

Digital CAN have a waxy look, it doesn't have the punch of film grain and contrast. If you add grain and contrast, you'll see that waxy look disappear. Also, due to the HDR workflow, many post houses step away from the high contrast look these days and it brings out the worst in digital cinema in my opinion. A well lit, well shot, well graded SDR show, will not look waxy at all. 

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I think in many cases the CGI look of the faces comes from too aggressive digital de-ageing. 
 

I don’t believe it is due to the use of LEDs - it’s not like HMIs have perfect color rendition. And like others pointed out there are many beautifully LED-lit films with more “natural” faces. 

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I must admit I didn't really get what the OP was talking about... and then I saw the trailer for Baz Luhrmann's Elvis.

 

 

My first thought was that Baz had made a CGI film and had gone solidly into uncanny valley territory.  But everything online is treating it like it's real actors!  So I guess Baz found the uncanny valley coming from the other direction, whoa.  Even some of the visual treatments are CGI-like, the kind of floating shots and snap zooms you always see in video game cut scenes for instance.  What is going on here?!

Duncan

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On this very example, it seems to me that there is absolutely no technical constraint at stake. It is the director's wish to have that look. It is made on purpose. Whether we like it or not is just personal taste. Moreover, it is really hard to tell whether this look deserves the story, just based on the trailer.

Edited by Nicolas POISSON
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