We’ve Reached the Deepfake Tipping Point
Tom Cruise is on TikTok but hasn’t produced a single video. DeepTomCruise, on the other hand, has a nice little collection of clips, all featuring Cruise’s trademark grin, intensity, and staccato delivery. He even performed a sleight-of-hand magic trick. It would be easy to mistake the two.
By now, you’ve probably seen the Deepfake version of Tom Cruise that briefly lit up TikTok (and the rest of social and traditional media) with just four convincing, but slightly plasticine versions of Tom Cruise. Deepfakes have been on our radar for years, but these clips were noticeable for their stunning verisimilitude. I’ve done some real research on deepfake technology and am supposed to be a skeptical journalist but even I was, for just a few moments, fooled.
Cruise has long been a prime deepfake target because, like other highly popular and productive movie stars and celebrities, there’s a ton of source material that programmers can use to map his face onto another performer’s. Cruise’s face becomes a digital mask, a skin of ones and zeros, that moves in concert with another person’s face. To complete the illusion, DeepTomCruise just needs to mimic Cruise’s voice and explosive gestures.
DeepTomCruise is a symptom, though, of a larger issue: A technology that’s spreading quickly and threatens to get out of control.
Two years ago, I wrote:
“Eventually, the high-quality Deepfake hardware and software will shrink to smartphone size. Someday, you’ll be able to train your phone on your face, or someone else’s, shoot or download a video, replace one or more faces with yours or someone else’s face and post online all within a matter of minutes. That’s when things will get really crazy.”
Now there are multiple consumer-grade face-swapping apps like Reface and Impressions. Recently, I downloaded Reface. It cleverly lets me take a photo of myself on my iPhone and then maps that image to the face of dozens of different movie stars in some of their most iconic roles. My face, for instance, replaced Sylvester Stallone’s in all his Rambo movies.
More recently, MyHeritage is letting people upload photos of long-dead relatives and historical figures and reanimate them. Unlike Deepfakes, MyHeritage isn’t replacing one face with another; but it is using similar technology to analyze the photo and animate it based on how living faces move and talk.
Granted, Reface and MyHeritage results are more about entertainment than fooling someone into believing a dead relative is alive or convincing anyone I’m an action star. Also, it still takes a significant amount of computing power, time, and skill to create DeepTomCruise-level trickery. Even so, this level of progress is a sign that, a few years from now, pro-level Deepfake imagery will be in the palm of our hands.
I don’t know the DeepTomCruise faker, actor Miles Fisher, but in 2019 I interviewed Tom Cruise impersonator Evan Ferrante. He goes by the Twitter handle “Not Tom Cruise” and generally uses his real physical assets to impersonate Cruise’s looks, speech, and actions. Ferrante made a splash in 2019 when he worked with YouTubers Corridor Crew to map the real Tom Cruise’s face to his own. Even back then, Ferrante called the results “cautionary entertainment,” telling me it was both mesmerizing and deeply unsettling. He was also worried about filmmakers using the technology to recast dead actors in new movies. At least SAG, the actor’s union, has strict guidelines for use of unlicensed material.
I caught up with Ferrante on Twitter and asked him if these latest Cruise had heightened his deepfake abuse concerns.
“Absolutely, since I never set out to fool or deceive anyone, and the latest deepfake did just that. It wasn’t particularly funny, just plain creepy,” wrote Ferrante, who said that he knew instantly it was a fake. Whenever Ferrante uses a Deepfake Tom Cruise digital mask, it’s only for entertainment purposes. “[I’ve] always put a clear disclaimer out there letting my audience know it’s parody.”
Considering the public’s familiarity with deepfakes, Ferrante said he was surprised that the DeepTomCruise videos took off. He attributes the virality to “how far the technology has developed over time,” but also that the videos neglected to include any kind of disclaimer or watermark. “It set out to deceive the general public,” said Ferrante.
I don’t know if that was DeepTomCruise’s intention, but without any information to dissuade an impressionable public, that was the result.
For now, DeepTomCruise has just four videos. I’m guessing that’s because it takes considerable effort to create each one but perhaps they’re also being cautious, hoping to avoid the ire of SAG and the real Tom Cruise.
If, by the way, you’re still confused about the veracity of DeepTomCruise, know this: The real tom Cruise doesn’t perform magic tricks.