Creator of Tom Cruise deepfakes shares how he made those viral TikTok videos

It took a lot more work than the average person could handle, says visual effects artist Chris Ume.

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Abrar Al-Heeti is a video host and producer for CNET, with an interest in internet trends, entertainment, pop culture and digital accessibility. Before joining the video team, she was a writer for CNET's culture team. She graduated with bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Though Illinois is home, she now loves San Francisco -- steep inclines and all.
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3 min read
Tom Cruise deepfake

Actor Miles Fisher appears on the left, while the deepfake depicting him as Tom Cruise is on the right. 

Chris Ume

Chris Ume was just trying to have some fun when he created those Tom Cruise deepfake videos on TikTok with actor and impersonator Miles Fisher. He didn't expect the clips to go viral or to stir up as much conversation as they did in the past week.  

"We weren't trying to fool people," the visual effects artist said in an interview. "We were trying to spark their fantasy." 

In the three videos, which were posted under the TikTok account @deeptomcruise, someone who appears to be Cruise is seen playing golf, doing a magic trick and awkwardly sharing an anecdote. Everything is practically spot on, from the laugh to the gestures to the facial expressions. But in reality, it's just Fisher behind the camera, whose image has been warped by deepfake technology. 

Deepfakes are videos that appear to show people doing or saying things they never did. Despite Ume's goal to have fun with the project, several people took to social media to discuss the darker possibilities of how deepfake technology could be used to mislead or manipulate people. One Twitter user outlined potential scenarios in which videos of leaders are altered to have them appear to say things they never did, or false information is used to spark riots. There's plenty of concern deepfake technology could disrupt elections or violate people's privacy.

Ume wants to make it clear that his intentions were purely creative, and that it's not so easy for anyone to create videos as convincing as his -- at least not with where the technology currently stands. He spent two months training an AI model, several days shooting the clips and around 24 hours on post-production for each video.

"A lot of work went into creating these things," Ume said. "For this particular project, you have to know you have a professional actor. He's one of the best Tom Cruise impersonators. ... On the other hand, you have me. I'm a deepfake specialist, and I'm a visual effects artist. I also have professional hardware to work with. The two of us, we're like a professional team. It's not like you're sitting at home and you can just click on a button and you can create the same thing we did."

That doesn't mean the technology won't progress in the coming years, he notes. 

"Yes, the tech will get better," Ume said. "People will be able to do more stuff on their own. But we are not there yet."

So far, the tech has largely been used to show what's possible and as a source of entertainment, particularly in the online pop culture space. Curious fans have reimagined a handful of actors, from Tobey Maguire to Lynda Carter, into roles they never played. If this isn't a completely novel practice, then why did the Tom Cruise videos get so much attention?

"Because the impersonator is so good," Ume said. "And it's Tom Cruise. Everyone loves Tom Cruise."

Watch this: We're not ready for the deepfake revolution

Despite their popularity -- or perhaps because of it -- Ume and Fisher initially decided to delete the videos from the @deeptomcruise TikTok account. They felt the clips had fulfilled their purpose, Ume says, and they didn't want Cruise to feel uncomfortable. (He notes they were never contacted by TikTok or Cruise, but they just felt it was time to close out that chapter. TikTok and Cruise didn't respond to a previous CNET request for comment.) But on Friday, Ume and Fisher once again made the videos visible on their TikTok account so people could view them in their original format, instead of watching reuploads across social media.

Ume also released a breakdown of how he created the deepfakes on his YouTube channel, and is ready to start on his next project, whatever that may be. 

"The pressure is on for me now to create new stuff," he said. "It's [going to be] a challenge, just as these videos were." 

But it likely won't be Mission: Impossible. (Sorry, I had to.)

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