Last week a trio of deepfake videos on TikTok depicting an imitation of Tom Cruise playing golf, falling over, and doing a magic trick went viral. The videos inspired a raft of warnings that a flood of similar videos were about to overwhelm our social media feeds, and no one would ever believe anything they see online again.
But just how easy is it to make a viral deepfake TikTok video featuring Tom Cruise?
Well, not very.
First, you need the world’s best Tom Cruise impersonator. Then you need to hire one of the very few visual effects artists who specialize in deepfake videos. After that, it’s just a matter of training an artificial intelligence-powered neural network for several months, and then spending dozens of hours painstakingly going through each video frame by frame to fix all the errors.
That’s why it’s pretty safe to say we won’t be seeing a glut of high-quality deepfakes on TikTok any time soon, according to Chris Ume, the Belgian visual effects artist and deepfake expert who created the Cruise videos.
Ume spoke to VICE News this week after his experiment became a viral sensation. And while the rest of the world was captivated by just how realistic the videos looked, Ume only saw the errors.
“Even after all that work, you can still see a few glitches,” he said.
In a new video posted on his YouTube channel Friday morning, Ume showcases the process of creating the videos, highlighting the amount of time and effort that went into them.
Deepfakes are videos where one person’s face—usually a celebrity’s — is swapped onto the body of someone else.
To do this, deepfake creators like Ume feed a database of images and videos of the target—Tom Cruise, in this case—into a computer running a machine-learning algorithm.
That algorithm then tries to create its own versions of these images. In order to ensure the forgeries get better, a separate algorithm runs alongside it and checks if it can detect if the images are fake.
The two programs run side by side until the machine-learning algorithm can produce fake images that are good enough to trick the forgery-detecting algorithm.
But that was just the first step. Next came the painstaking process of going through each video frame-by-frame to correct errors.
“It took me about 24 hours of pure post-production work to fix each of them up. That's how much work I put into these videos,” Ume said.
But for all of his technical skill, one of the most important elements for the success of these videos was the presence of Miles Fisher, a well-known Tom Cruise impersonator.
“I also want to emphasize that the actor is phenomenal,” Kevin Ume, who manages communications for VFX Chris Ume studio, and is Chris’ brother, told VICE News. “What the actor does in terms of the movements he makes like Tom Cruise, the likeness his face has, his mannerism. It has a lot to do with these videos being as realistic as they are.”
Watching Ume’s breakdown video, it’s sometimes hard to tell when you’re watching Fisher and when you’re watching the deepfake version of Tom Cruise.
The @deeptomcruise TikTok account that Ume originally posted the videos to was briefly made private earlier this week, but on Friday the videos were made public again. As of Friday morning they’d racked up over 11 million views, and on other social media platforms, copies of the videos have been shared millions times more.
“We just wanted to make sure Tom Cruise didn't feel offended in any way,” Chris said. It’s unclear if Cruise has seen the videos, but days after they became a viral hit, Cruise opened his own verified TikTok account.
Ume said the whole project was “just for fun” but added that the coverage of the videos underlines a more serious point about this technology: that people need to be educated about deepfakes, shown exactly how the technology works and how to spot such videos.
“We shouldn't do fearmongering. We should try to prepare the world for what's coming,” Ume said.
Deepfake technology has been around for years, and from the very beginning, people have warned that it could be used to supercharge disinformation. These threats reached a fever pitch during the U.S. elections last year.
So far that hasn’t happened, and based on the amount of work, expertise, and resources needed to create the Cruise videos, it’s clear that not just anyone can create this type of content.
“I'm not sure a lot of people can do it at the level I'm doing it right now, especially because I'm a visual effects artist doing deepfakes, and I've been there from the start,” Ume said. “And I don't think a lot of people can do exactly what I'm doing right now.”