Not since he was last seen jumping on Oprah Winfrey’s sofa has a video of Tom Cruise generated so many headlines.
Except this time it was not Tom Cruise, but a set of sophisticated deepfakes so convincing that they quickly ran up nearly 12m views when they appeared on TikTok last week under the account @deeptomcruise.
Their incredible realism stoked new fears over the implications of the technology in the hands of those intent on spreading disinformation, but the man behind the videos, Belgian visual effects expert Chris Ume, wants people to know the sophistication of his videos is not so easily replicable.
“It’s a fantasy that people can do this from their own computer,” said Ume, a former cameraman who entered the visual effects field around five years ago. “You can’t create art using a bicycle.”
The hyperrealism achieved in these particular clips required months of preparation on top of Ume’s skills in traditional visual effects and deepfakes, high-end hardware, and the talents of Tom Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher.
Ume spent two months training an artificial intelligence program with a huge number of images of Cruise in order to create a digital replica, with a few additional days to adjust it for each individual scene. The videos, which are less than a minute long, required 24 hours of post-production work each.
The end results are startlingly realistic. In one of the videos, the synthetic Cruise shows off a coin trick, ending with the line: “It’s all the real thing”, followed by the actor’s signature laugh. In other videos, he can be seen golfing or tripping over a carpet, without breaking the illusion.
Henry Ajder, an expert on synthetic media, noted that even some of the publicly available deepfake detectors had been fooled. “The fact that these examples evaded some tools shows there is a long way to go before we can have confidence deploying them in critical scenarios, at least in the case of videos,” he said.
Deepfakes have been the subject of distrust over the potential for disinformation since they emerged in 2017. But Ajder pointed out that documented political deepfakes to date have been satirical or educational. Over-emphasising their prevalence, he said, risked giving politicians plausible deniability in genuine cases of wrongdoing.
Several social media companies have taken steps to prohibit or limit deepfakes. In August, TikTok announced a ban on misleading “synthetic or manipulated content”. Facebook announced a specific ban on deepfakes in January with exceptions for parody and satire, while Twitter’s policy is to label tweets with manipulated or synthetic media, but only to remove them if they are likely to cause harm.
Ume said he supported laws to govern the misuse of the technology. “The technique might get better and in a few years, people with bad intentions might start to use it,” he said. “I strongly think there should be laws: There is always going to be misuse — every tech has to deal with these kind of things.”
“I never want to use it in a malicious way, I just want to make people smile,” he added. “I’m glad I did this — it managed to create awareness and actually fulfilled its purpose.”
Ume, who is among the vanguard of deepfake creators who turned their hobbies into professional-grade work, began dabbling in synthetic media in 2018, after watching a news bulletin about the subject.
His earlier work on YouTube includes a video of Kit Harington, the actor who played Jon Snow, apologising for the controversial final season of Game of Thrones. “I really didn’t like Season 8”, he said.
Synthetic media is increasingly ubiquitous. Last week, MyHeritage and computer vision company D-ID unveiled ‘deep nostalgia’, which can create short videos from uploaded photos
Ume is currently working on Sassy Justice, a synthetic media show from South Park creators Trey Parker and Matt Stone, alongside British comic Peter Serafinowicz.
Ume, who appears to be enjoying his recent notoriety, said he had achieved one of his dreams by working with Parker and Stone. The other is to be part of a new Lord of the Rings.
“If Peter Jackson is reading this I’m here,” he said, pointing to an animation he made of Gollum singing along to Sinead O’Connor.