'I don't want to upset people': Tom Cruise deepfake creator speaks out

Joining TikTok has become something of a trend for Hollywood celebrities stuck at home like everyone else. So it wasn’t necessarily surprising to see Tom Cruise on the app, sharing videos of himself playing golf and pratfalling around the house.

But the strange thing is that Cruise never actually made the videos. And the account that posted them, DeepTomCruise, wore that on its sleeve: it was openly the work of a talented creator of “deepfakes”, AI-generated video clips that use a variety of techniques to create situations that have never happened in the real world.

Despite being open about their falseness, the videos posted by the account are so realistic that they still prompted wild speculation. Commercial tools for recognising deepfakes cleared the clips as “authentic”, and while eagle-eyed viewers claimed to spot artefacts, such as an out-of-sync reflection, others pondered whether the fake was itself fake: maybe Tom Cruise really had joined TikTok, in a meta hoax?

Now, the creator of the account has come forward to talk about his work. Or creators, rather, because DeepTomCruise is the product of a collaboration between the Belgian visual effects artist Christopher Ume and the Tom Cruise impersonator Miles Fisher.

The two had worked together once before, when Ume had put Cruise’s face on Fisher for a web series the latter was making imagining the actor’s campaign for the 2020 presidency. But the mysterious TikTok account wasn’t the result of a deep plan, Ume says. “A month later, he contacted me again, and said: ‘Let’s make a funny video … I’ll film myself in my garden and then you just make me look like Tom Cruise.’ And so we did that and he posted it – but he also created a TikTok account. He doesn’t know anything about the app, I don’t either, but then then two days later, he sends me a screenshot: ‘Dude. Two and a half million views.’”

Ume is no stranger to viral success. Despite only hearing about the concept of a deepfake in late 2018, he quickly decided to try his hand at creating them, and soon became one of the most adept users of the technology. In 2020, South Park Studios hired him to combine deepfake tech with the work of a team of crack comic writers, and last October, his first professional creation was uploaded: Sassy Justice, a Peter Serafinowicz-starring sketch in which the lead character interviews a host of global icons, all played by Serafinowicz.

But the DeepTomCruise account is a step further still. And Ume cautions it will not be the last time a nearly flawless deepfake appears unannounced. “I’d like to show people the technical possibilities of these things. I don’t intend to use it in any way where I would upset people – I just want to show them what’s possible in a few years.” What now takes an inventive impersonator, a beefy computer, and a skilled practitioner days of work could be done by a simple Snapchat filter by 2025, he suggests. “I just strongly think that there should be laws to help with the responsible use of AI and deepfakes,” Ume says.

For Ume, though, there is one other major hope he has for this whole affair: a single shot at the job of a lifetime. “When I started doing video and working on my projects, just in general, I always had a dream. I would like to work for Peter Jackson on The Lord of the Rings. I’m saying this in every interview: hey, Peter, if you’re reading this, contact me.”

Whether or not the New Zealand director takes Ume up on his offer, at least one person in Hollywood appears to have learned something from his and Fisher’s stunt: while Tom Cruise has refused to comment on the videos, the actor now has a verified account on TikTok – although with zero videos posted, and just 20,000 fans, he is apparently less popular than his deepfake counterpart.

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