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

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by Sam Adams
May 21, 2014 1:19 PM
9 Comments
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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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9 Comments

  • Grego | May 24, 2014 4:41 PMReply

    This article raises a couple of good questions, but I don't agree with that last sentence. In the case of a franchise Walker helped to create, and a film he absolutely wanted to finish, this is the right decision. Carry on with the script as intended and not simply writing Walker's character out or replacing him with another actor. He had already started filming the movie, don't forget. This is the right decision in this case.

  • Jason | May 22, 2014 10:10 AMReply

    Are the Bruce Lee and also Audrey Hepburn commercials utilizing face replacement? Yet, that's more novelty than filling in for an actor. To me the idea of repurposing the likeness of an actor can be cool, but certainly creates a legal nightmare for living actors, just more billable hours for contract lawyers debating media ethics.

  • Josh | May 22, 2014 5:44 AMReply

    This is tantamount to scaremongering. Acting is a tradecraft valued by studios and audiences alike. They want people and their personalities; things that can never be replaced by technology - unless in exceptional circumstances such as Paul Walker's sad, untimely death. This is (and should always be seen as) a last resort; it would much less expensive to hire a different actor in any other circumstance.

  • Hank | May 21, 2014 9:29 PMReply

    Weta Digital, not Weta Workshop.

  • Joe | May 21, 2014 8:27 PMReply

    I can understand the knee-jerk reaction, but in reality this is only a more technically challenging step further in the technical and artistic art of VFX. There are already countless films that have used facial replacements on stunt actors or full digital doubles, this is just the next step. Plus there is already a ludicrous amount of digital fixing that goes on in pretty much every film to hit the cinemas.

    The only thing that makes this different is that Paul Walker is dead.

  • Michael Hawkes | May 21, 2014 5:15 PMReply

    I've kinda been hoping they remake Westworld with a digital (in more ways than one) Yul Brynner. It seems like technology is moving to make it possible. Whether people will still understand the significance of Yul Brynner's character is something else.

  • Anna | May 21, 2014 2:28 PMReply

    The way it's written, it's like this is a threat to filmmaking, and I don't think it is at all. David Fincher also did this process in The Social Network.

  • Sabrina | May 24, 2014 2:02 PM

    She's referring to the twins in Social Network where a model was used for the second twin but his face was replaced by Armie Hammer's.

  • Michael | May 22, 2014 7:02 PM

    When? Where?

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