If your character has a split personality, the technology has digital body doubles to make it happen!

27 March 2017

In 2015, there was a moment when most movie goers broke down in tears. When Vin Diesel’s voice echoed “You will always be with me and you will always be my brother” after a final confrontation with his best buddy, it took some time for audience to gather themselves back. Furious 7, paid a fitting tribute to one of their prominent stars, Paul Walker. When the gifted actor was killed in an unfortunate car accident late 2013, his character still had unfinished shots to cover in the seventh installment of Fast and Furious series. In a prior to digital era scenario, it would have been necessary to bring in another actor and completely reshoot his segments. But most modern filming techniques ensured that it will be Paul Walker himself who will be on screen and he will be given a silver screen homage that he deserved. Using digital body doubles, Paul Walker thrilled the screens in all his glory for one last time. 

To complete the film, James Wan the director and the Furios 7 team made use of Paul Walker’s brothers Coby and Caleb Walker for close up shots and for the rest of the scenes they had four actors with similar body features of Paul Walker. WETA Digital, the Visual Effects Studio based in New Zealand, who had already shown their proficiency in films like Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Avatar, Rise and Dawn of Planet of the Apes undertook this demanding task of digitally recreating Paul Walker. Around 260 shots involved performances by one of the two brothers of Paul and around 90 shots of Paul Walker were used from unused footages of previous films in the franchise. The much loved final scene was performed by Caleb Walker and the crew made use of a similar shot of Paul Walker from their unused footage. But, the footage involving Paul Walker was filmed in night and hence WETA Digital had to change the lighting and replace Caleb’s head with Paul. Another hurdle in recreating Paul were the dialogues as most of the computer generated shots had some kind of dialogue in them. The sound engineers had to carefully carve out and animate existing dialogues from Paul. Like in most amazing works, the attention to detailing in recreating Paul Walker was also massive. The length and placement of every individual hair, the stubble on his beard were all given proper attention while recreating!

But Paul Walker’s was not the only instance where an actor was recreated after his demise. Another famous case is the multiple Academy Award winning ‘Gladiator ’. Oliver Reed, the actor known for his macho image and tough guy roles passed away during filming in Malta and The Mill, famous Visual Effects Studio based in London used live action body double in the shadows and a two-minute extra footage was added using a 3D computer generated imagery mask of Reed’s face. Reflecting on the decision to add extra footage, the visual effects supervisor said that the film is dedicated to Reed’s memory and all they did was to help Reed complete his inspiring and moving performance. 

If these were examples of unfortunate deaths of actors during the production of a film, there was a film that brought back an actor who passed away 15 years before! Laurence Olivier, one of the predominant British stage figures of 20th century was brought back to life to play the antagonist Dr. Totenkopf in the film ‘Sky Captain and the world of tomorrow’ which released in 2004. To make this happen, director Kerry Conran recorded new dialogues from another actor and digitally manipulated the archival BBC footages of the actor. One of the stars of the film, Jude Law explained that the team preferred to go with Olivier because only very few actors, alive or dead, carried his menacing weight.

There are few more examples in this regard like Philip Seymour Hoffman in the ‘Hunger Games – MockingJay Part 2’, Roy Scheider in ‘Iron Cross’, Bruce Lee in ‘Game of Death’ and his Son Brandon Lee in ‘The Crow’. Digital technologies provide a wonderful platform to honour the amazing actors who once delighted us. But this is not just where body doubles are used. How about movies in which the same actor portrays multiple characters? 

One of the best roles of Jesse Eisenberg after playing the millionaire Mark Zuckerberg will be Simon James in the film ‘The Double’. In the film, a confident and charismatic Jesse overthrows an under appreciated Jesse. Director Richard Ayoade wanted the multiple roles in the film such a way that it will not feel like an ‘effect’. The studio that supervised the visual effects were Framestore, who had just received Academy Award for their work in Gravity. Motion control cameras that can repeat the same action several times, body double and a technique called rotoscoping were used to film scenes with two Jesses. In other words, it was shot as if though there were two actors on set. Using rotoscoping, the team cut one Jessie and sticked him into a scene with the other Jesse. Every scene had to be shot twice and Jesse used an earpiece to act against himself.

Another supreme example for the smart use of body double is the Canadian Television Series Orphan Black. In this series, the central character played by Tatiana Maslany encounters several cloned versions of herself. Some of the finest moments in the series occur when the clones face off against each other. The multiple clone scenes are created in layers using a telescoping camera crane, technodolly, that memorizes and repeats complicated movements perfectly. While filming, Maslany performs the role of each clone twice, one using a body double to get the timing, blocking and shadows right and then one without. Star of the show Tatiana and the makers are all praise for the body double Kathryn Alexandre as she plays a vital role in the total outcome of the series. Alexandre learned the accent and physicality for each clone thus enabling Tatiana to have a play off in a multiple clone scene. Quite often, Alexandre is the first to play a clone in a scene and her dramatic choices heavily inspires Tatiana’s performance.

Image Courtesy: bit.ly/2jUjEeQ

Every great actor is a fan of challenges. Multiple roles provide him the opportunity to bring out the diversity in him. Through digital body doubles, now, more than ever there is a greater possibility for actors to dive deep into the unexplored territories!

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