Furious 7 is out April 3 and that means we will all get to see the late Paul Walker on the big screen one last time.
But is that really him or a digital reconstruction?
Well, it is Paul Walker, but also a digital version made of computer-generated graphics. It's also his brothers, Cody and Caleb, who stood in for him after his untimely death during the making of Furious 7. Not only that, apparently director James Wan pulled footage of Walker from previous movies in the Fast and Furious series.
According to sources who spoke with Hollywood Reporter, Peter Jackson's Weta Digital studio, which made the special effects for The Lord of the Rings movies and Jackson's 2005 King Kong remake, was responsible for digitally recreating Walker for certain parts of Furious 7. This leap in technology has led some to believe that there could be a time when actors can be recreated wholesale.
Some movies treat recreating actors with computer graphics as a precaution or a method to enhance the movie's veracity, like Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which took 3D scans of its actors when production began in order to create CG stunt doubles for complex action scenes.
Visual effects supervisor Scott Squires, who worked on Star Wars Episode I, Van Helsing and American Sniper explained, "If there's any inkling that you might need a scan, they scan the actor at the start of production. I've also heard of certain studios having actors scanned just as an archival thing." Archiving digital versions of actors opens up the possibility that we could see contemporary performers like Chris Evans and Scarlett Johansson galivanting onscreen in 20 or 30 years, but with their youthful looks intact.
Paul Walker isn't the first case of a recently deceased actor remade using computers. When Oliver Reed suffered a fatal heart attack during the filming of Gladiator, footage from outtakes had to be used to make a "digital mask" that was placed onto shots of a body double. Gladiator won the Oscar for Best Visual Effects in 2001.
The producers of The Sopranos had to deal with the passing of Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano's mother, in 2000. "Basically it was 2D compositing," Rick Wagonheim, who executive produced those effects said. "The problem was some of the angles didn't really match as well as they could have."
There are also examples of actors recreated entirely with CG, like the 90-second Johnny Walker commercial featuring Bruce Lee - a martial artist who stayed away from alcohol. The Mill, the visual effects studio that won the Oscar for Gladiator worked on that ad. "We created his entire face in CG and hand-animated that, using shots of the actor for reference," Robin Shenfield, CEO of the London-based VFX company said. "The eyes require a lot of work. Keeping motion continuous in the musculature and the eyes is the key to making it look real."
While the technology is impressive, the question arises: should VFX companies be scanning actors for archival purposes at all? It's one thing to salvage a movie in the middle of the production, but resurrecting long-dead performners to sell whiskey and cars has left many sour. Consider the response to the 2011 Volkswagen Jetta ad "starring" Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor, famous for 1952's Singin' in the Rain. Bill Prady, executive producer of The Big Bang Theory, tweeted, "The Jetta commercial with Gene Kelly and Donald O'Connor digitally dancing in the back seat makes me sad on a level I cannot truly express."
You can watch the Jetta ad here:
The Bruce Lee Johnny Walker ad:
And a similar Gene Kelly Volkswagen ad: