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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"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.
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."
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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.