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Paul Walker's Digital "Fast & Furious" Double and the Troubling Future of Film Acting

Photo of Sam Adams By Sam Adams | Criticwire May 21, 2014 at 1:19PM

The late Paul Walker's scenes in "Fast 7" will be completed by a digital doppelganger. Who's next?
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According to an article in the Hollywood Reporter, Paul Walker's scenes in the seventh "Fast & Furious" movie will be completed by a CGI double. Standing in for Walker, who died last November in a fiery car crash, will be his brothers, 36-year-old Caleb ("primarily for body size and mannerisms") and 25-year-old Cody ("for the eyes"), as well as a three-camera crew from New Zealand's Weta Workshop, performing a process they not-at-all creepily call "face replacement."

As an industry journal, the Reporter focuses on the process' financial impact -- an estimated $50 million added to "Fast 7's" previous budget of $200 million -- and why Universal didn't simply rewrite the script to to remove Walker's character altogether:

In the wake of the fatal crash, it was unclear whether Universal would scrap the film and start anew -- which presumably would have been even more expensive for its insurer -- or replace Walker with another actor or eliminate his character. Since deciding to keep Walker in the film, the studio has courted fans by characterizing the move as a tribute to the actor. An April statement on the movie's Facebook page read: "We believe our fans want that, and we believe Paul would want that, too."

But the implications go far beyond the bottom line. The "face replacement" process as its described is too expensive to be used on a whim, but it's possible to see studios using it as a nuclear option in future contract negotiations: If the real Andrew Garfield is tired of playing Spider-Man, they can just whip up a new one, arguing that Garfield may own his own likeness but they own the image of him as Peter Parker. (Less speculatively, it would sure come in handy when a star is playing hardball about coming back for reshoots.) 

But it also risks extended the dangers of what HitFix's Drew McWeeny has called "the age of casual magic" to the realm of an actor's performance. When we see a car fly through the air or a rocketship blast into space, we no longer have to wonder, wide-eyed, how they did it: They did it the same way they do everything. But we've been able to trust, up until this point, the idea that when we're watching an actor, we're watching something that happened. They cried real tears; they laughed that laugh. As long as there's been glycerine, and editing, the boundaries have been blurry, but even so, when we looked an actor, we saw something more real than not.

With "Fast 7," will we know when we're looking at the real Paul Walker or a digital duplicate? And will anyone be able to watch his scenes without constantly trying to discern the one from the other? The "Fast" series has thus far prided itself on using practical stunts -- i.e. real cars smashing into real things -- but when you replace one of your actors with a CGI doppelganger, that commitment goes right out the window.

Andy Serkis, best known for playing Gollum in the "Lord of the Rings" movies, has lately kicked up the debate about the extent to which credit for the character's performance can be laid at his feet by referring to the extensive work performed on his blue-suited body as "digital makeup": In his formulation, he does the hard work of acting, and then the technicians come in after the fact and paint a Gollum suit on top. The technicians, naturally, object, arguing that the transformation goes way beyond the cosmetic, and pointing out that Serkis wasn't even involved in some of the early Gollum scenes. It cuts both ways, too. Alan Tudyk, who provided the performance-capture basis for a character in "I, Robot," lamented the fact that the performance he gave never made it to film: "It’s like you paint a painting, and I go, 'Great! I’m going to do a painting of that painting.' And then I show the painting of your painting to the world. And that’s how everybody knows your painting."

In the cast of Walker's "Fast & Furious," we won't even be looking at a "painting of a painting," but someone else's idea of what that painting might have looked like. That's no way to honor Walker's fans, or even a basic concept of humanity.


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