Animate Your Ancestors

Welcome to the world of retro reality

Welcome to the world of retro reality. And meet my 3rd great-grandmother, Ellen (Nelligan) Murphy, who was born in Ireland in 1832.

MyHeritage announced its Deep Nostalgia tool which allows you to animate photos (also available as an app). It doesn’t work for all photos, but succeeds with many, and is simultaneously weird and wonderful. Pro Tip: When it’s your own ancestor, you might find yourself unexpectedly emotional, so consider starting with ancestors you didn’t know personally.

Want another example? Here’s Barack Obama’s 3rd great-grandfather — also an Irish immigrant — Fulmoth Kearney (born in 1830), along with a side-by-side with his famous descendant.


Deep Nostalgia has exploded since I first wrote about it just six days ago. In fact, it’s been holding down the #1 spot among apps for a while now. So here are a few more tips from someone who’s played with a number of photos, as well as seen countless other examples from my fellow genealogists:

  1. It’s been described as “creepy cool,” and there’s something to that. Setting aside one’s comfort level with bringing the dearly departed back to life (and there’s a definite contingent that’s squeamish), different photos turn out — surprise! — differently. Depending on the original expression, some appear restless as if they want to escape the box they’re in, while others wind up looking flirty. Perhaps the most charming ones are the ancestors who look around as if taking the situation in and then end with just a hint of a smile as you’ll see with my great-grandfather here.
animation of my great-grandfather, Peter Smolenyak

2. If your photo has flaws, they will appear in the video. Notice the “scar” on my ancestor’s forehead above? That’s a scratch on the photo, so you might want to consider a bit of photo editing before animating.

3. There are photos it simply doesn’t work with and others it will badly distort, but these are a distinct minority. Some old photos are too blurry, so the tool won’t recognize the faces. And after almost a week of experimenting, I’ve only had one that was recognized as a face, but somehow challenged the technology so that the face wound up butchered. It happens, but it’s rare.

4. If a photo doesn’t work on your first go, try a black and white version. MyHeritage can colorize it if you want, but for whatever reason, black and white images seem to work especially well — and that includes those old, beat-up Xerox copies some of us have of rare family photos. This, for instance, is the original submission that resulted in the video above:

5. It can only animate one face at a time, so if you have a photo with several people in it, it will work, but only one will be processed. I find myself snagging individual faces out of group shots and doing them one at a time, but it’s not strictly necessary.

6. There’s no need to restrict it to your ancestors. Deep Nostalgia had been flying around the genealogical community for only a few hours before some started animating their own baby and school pictures.

7. In case you’re wondering, yes, it can also work with some images of faces that are, say, statues, paintings, or sketches. Not all of them, but a good percentage, so if you have such a photo, give it a try. And if you’re curious whether it will work with animals, sorry, but the answer is no. At least, I haven’t succeeded in doing so yet!

But isn’t this deepfake?

For those who are concerned about the deepfake aspect of this, I can tell you that genealogists’ reactions have ranged from enthusiastic to alarmed. We realize that future generations may not be able to distinguish fakes, if they even wish to.

Just as some can no longer read cursive, it won’t be long before a time when some won’t realize that video hasn’t been around forever. But the technology is here and wildly popular, so it’s in our best interests to to adapt by taking steps such as carefully labeling videos that resulted from animation.

And yes, we figure it’s just a matter of time before we’ll be able to put words in our ancestors’ mouths, though we appreciate MyHeritage resisting the urge to do so — at least for now. It’s all very new, so we’re still adjusting.

Genealogists are truth-tellers, so it’s caught us off-guard to find ourselves front and center in the deepfake debate. That said, genealogy is ultimately about connection, and there’s no question that this technology is linking the living with their ancestors in an exciting way. And just as DNA testing has been the gateway for so many into our genealogical world, this is apt to attract still more, and we all welcome new cousins and family detective playmates!

Share your experience

It’s still very early days for this technology, so I suspect we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s possible. I welcome your thoughts, suggestions, learning experiences, and examples. If you’ve got any insights to share from your experimentation, please consider sharing them. Happy animating!

Genealogical adventurer & storyteller who loves solving mysteries! You may not know me, but chances are you’ve seen my work. (

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