Viral Chinese deepfake app Zao lets people superimpose their faces onto celebrities like Leonardo DiCaprio and it is terrifyingly convincing


Chinese models selfie

  • An app called Zao was the most-downloaded app in China’s iOS store over the weekend, and it lets users convincingly superimpose their faces onto celebrities, creating so-called “deepfakes.”
  • The app isn’t available in the West, but videos uploaded to social media show people deepfaking themselves into scenes from “Game of Thrones,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Braveheart.”
  • Deepfake technology uses AI software to take pictures of someone and map their face onto video of someone else.
  • While Zao is pretty amusing, users spotted an unusual line in the app’s terms and conditions that suggested it could keep and reuse their images forever. That prompted a privacy-oriented backlash, and an apology from Zao’s creators.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

China’s iPhone users have found a new craze — a new app called Zao which lets people convincingly and hilariously transpose their faces onto actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Kit Harrington from “Game of Thrones”, and many others.

Zao topped the Chinese iOS download chart over the weekend after first launching on the App Store on Friday. As of Monday, Zao remains top of China’s App Store, according to App Annie. It isn’t currently available to anyone without a Chinese phone number, and isn’t listed on the UK or US App Store or Play Store.

Created by Chinese developer MoMo, the app allows users to deepfake their faces onto a huge range of actors, singers, and even video game characters. Users can upload even just a single image of their face and the app will automatically map it onto selected video clips for them. The results are surprisingly convincing and unexpected.

Read more: From porn to ‘Game of Thrones’: How deepfakes and realistic-looking fake videos hit it big

So-called “deepfake” technology has caught the public’s imagination, using AI software to analyse someone’s face and then map it onto video of someone else. Recently it has become more sophisticated and, as the Zao app shows, more accessible.

Check out some Zao-generated deepfakes below:

This tweet from game developer Allan Xia shows his face grafted onto various shots of Leonardo DiCaprio.

Tweet Embed:
In case you haven’t heard, #ZAO is a Chinese app which completely blew up since Friday. Best application of ‘Deepfake’-style AI facial replacement I’ve ever seen.

Here’s an example of me as DiCaprio (generated in under 8 secs from that one photo in the thumbnail) 🤯


Xia also had a dialogue with himself as both Jon Snow and Samwell Tarly from “Game of Thrones.”

Tweet Embed:
Here’s for Asian representation in Hollywood 😂 #ZAO #AI #Deepfake


The app has GIF-generating functionality, as illustrated by this gif of Xia as Wolverine.

Tweet Embed:
The #ZAO app even has a built in meme gif generator…Apple is way behind the curve with Memoji’s 😅


It also appears to work with video game characters, here’s Xia inserting his face into “Devil May Cry.”

Tweet Embed:
Oh yeah, #Zao also works rather well with CG characters. I guess folks might not have to spend hours during character creation? I can see streamers loving this application of AI facial replacement. #DMC5


Finally Xia replaced a K-Pop singer’s face with his own.

Tweet Embed:
Taking this experiment to it’s inevitable conclusion. #KPop stans eat your heart out 😂 @weareoneEXO#Zao #AI #Deepfakes #Exo #baekhyun


Twitter-user Nikk Mitchell also deepfaked his way onto DiCaprio’s filmography.

Tweet Embed:
Me risking my face rights to test out #ZAO so ya’ll don’t have to. The image I used is one single normal selfie that you can see in the bottom left of the image.#thefuturescaresme


Mitchell expressed his amazement at the app, mapping himself onto two Chinese actors.

Tweet Embed:
I am in absolute awe of #ZAO. I uploaded a couple selfies, choose a clip, and seriously in less then 30 seconds had myself fully deep faked in. I can’t wait till I can watch entire films where every character is me.

On a side note to the developers, please don’t be evil.


Chinese technology commentator Matthew Brennan inserted himself into the “Big Bang Theory.”

Tweet Embed:
Chinese viral deepfakes app #ZAO Clip of myself as Sheldon generated in a few seconds from a single picture.


And Twitter user Andrew Rae transposed himself into “Braveheart.”

Tweet Embed:
New Chinese app Zao does AI facial replacement in 10 seconds. That’s me in the bottom-left corner.



Zao isn’t currently available to non-Chinese users, but it’s raising some concerns around privacy and the ethics of deepfakes

Behind Zao is Momo, a large social-media company which owns Chinese dating app Tantan.

Bloomberg and The Guardian reported that after going viral, privacy concerns started to crop up from users who had seen a line in the app’s terms and conditions which stipulated the app had “free, irrevocable, permanent, transferable, and relicense-able” to user-generated content.

The backlash promoted WeChat, China’s popular chat service, to block Zao on its platform. 

Bloomberg reports that Zao quickly updated its terms, saying “headshots” and “mini-videos” won’t be used for anything other to improve the app, or anything else pre-approved by the user. The sudden backlash is reminiscent of the mistrust that surrounded FaceApp, a Russian app which used AI to apply various filters to users’ faces to make them appear old or switch gender.

Zao also said in a statement, according to Bloomberg: “We understand the concern about privacy. We’ve received the feedback, and will fix the issues that we didn’t take into consideration, which will need a bit of time.”

Should Zao decide to make its app available more widely, it’s likely Western users will still feel concern. China has used facial recognition technology to massively expand its surveillance network, and users will likely balk at handing over personal data to an overseas developer. Chinese selfie app Meitu likewise went viral in the West in 2017 for its beautification of photos, but was criticized for demanding access to excessive data like phone numbers and GPS co-ordinates.