When a series of spookily convincing Tom Cruise deepfakes went viral on TikTok, some suggested it was a chilling sign of things to come — harbinger of an era where AI will let anyone make fake videos of anyone else. The video’s creator, though, Belgium VFX specialist Chris Ume, says this is far from the case. Speaking to The Verge about his viral clips, Ume stresses the amount of time and effort that went into making each deepfake, as well as the importance of working with a top-flight Tom Cruise impersonator, Miles Fisher.
“You can’t do it by just pressing a button,” says Ume. “That’s important, that’s a message I want to tell people.” Each clip took weeks of work, he says, using the open-source DeepFaceLab algorithm as well as established video editing tools. “By combining traditional CGI and VFX with deepfakes, it makes it better. I make sure you don’t see any of the glitches.”
Ume has been working with deepfakes for years, including creating the effects for the “Sassy Justice” series made by South Park’s Trey Parker and Matt Stone. He started working on Cruise when he saw a video by Fisher announcing a fictitious run for president by the Hollywood star. The pair then worked together on a follow-up and decided to put a series of “harmless” clips up on TikTok. Their account, @deeptomcruise, quickly racked up tens of thousands of followers and likes. Ume pulled the videos briefly but then restored them.
“It’s fulfilled its purpose,” he says of the account. “We had fun. I created awareness. I showed my skills. We made people smile. And that’s it, the project is done.” A spokesperson from TikTok told The Verge that the account was well within its rules for parody uses of deepfakes, and Ume notes that Cruise — the real Tom Cruise — has since made his own official account, perhaps as a result of seeing his AI doppelgänger go viral.
Deepfake technology has been developing for years now, and there’s no doubt that the results are getting more realistic and easier to make. Although there has been much speculation about the potential harm such technology could cause in politics, so far these effects have been relatively nonexistent. Where the technology is definitely causing damage is in the creation of revenge porn or nonconsensual pornography of women. In those cases, the fake videos or images don’t have to be realistic to create tremendous damage. Simply threatening someone with the release of fake imagery, or creating rumors about the existence of such content, can be enough to ruin reputations and careers.
The Tom Cruise fakes, though, show a much more beneficial use of the technology: as another part of the CGI toolkit. Ume says there are so many uses for deepfakes, from dubbing actors in film and TV, to restoring old footage, to animating CGI characters. What he stresses, though, is the incompleteness of the technology operating by itself.
Creating the fakes took two months to train the base AI models (using a pair of NVIDIA RTX 8000 GPUs) on footage of Cruise, and days of further processing for each clip. After that, Ume had to go through each video, frame by frame, making small adjustments to sell the overall effect; smoothing a line here and covering up a glitch there. “The most difficult thing is making it look alive,” he says. “You can see it in the eyes when it’s not right.”
Ume says a huge amount of credit goes to Fisher; a TV and film actor who captured the exaggerated mannerisms of Cruise, from his manic laugh to his intense delivery. “He’s a really talented actor,” says Ume. “I just do the visual stuff.” Even then, if you look closely, you can still see moments where the illusion fails, as in the clip below where Fisher’s eyes and mouth glitch for a second as he puts the sunglasses on.
Although Ume’s point is that his deepfakes take a lot of work and a professional impersonator, it’s also clear that the technology will improve over time. Exactly how easy it will be to make seamless fakes in the future is difficult to predict, and experts are busy developing tools that can automatically identify fakes or verify unedited footage.
Ume, though, says he isn’t too worried about the future. We’ve developed such technology before and society’s conception of truth has more or less survived. “It’s like Photoshop 20 years ago, people didn’t know what photo editing was, and now they know about these fakes,” he says. As deepfakes become more and more of a staple in TV and movies, people’s expectations will change, as they did for imagery in the age of Photoshop. One thing’s for certain, says Ume, and it’s that the genie can’t be put back in the bottle. “Deepfakes are here to stay,” he says. “Everyone believes in it.”
Update March 5th, 12:11PM ET: Updated to note that Ume and Fisher has now restored the videos to the @deeptomcruise TikTok account.