Paul Walker was halfway through production of Furious 7 when, ironically, he tragically lost his life in a car crash in Southern California. When Universal Studios execs got the news, they halted production of the eagerly awaited film and called in director James Wan to discuss what would become of the movie.

For Paul Walker’s final scene, the actor’s face was digitally placed over the face of his brother.

Would studio execs scrap the production? Would the director rewrite the film and not use Walker’s footage? Or use body doubles to finish Walker’s takes?

The studio had a hard decision to make – and one that other film productions have also faced – but ultimately the studio decided to continue with production. Wan called together the production team to communicate the plan as he worked with screenwriters to finish the film without Walker.

We knew we had to push forward — not for the sake of finishing the movie, but for Paul.

– James Wan, Furious 7 Director

That meant calling in Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital special effects company (the same company asked to create visual effects for the Lord of the Rings films, including the virtual character of Gollum), to help recreate the dead actor through digital effects.

While some may find it morbid, the goal was not to just save the film, but also give the actor, who played ex-cop Brian O’ Conner in six of seven Furious films, a proper send-off. The whole process was a real lesson in digital filmmaking.

Finishing Furious 7 with Computers…Not Cars
Director James Wan told the press at a special preview of the film, “We knew that farewell send-off was the biggest thing for us. We knew we had to push forward – not for the sake of finishing the movie, but for Paul. Everything we did – every idea, every edit and every concept – was about creating an ending that was a fitting and honorable farewell to Paul’s character and his legacy.”

Here’s the tribute to Paul Walker and the final scene from the film.

On set, Paul’s brothers Caleb and Cody were used as body doubles, with Paul’s face placed digitally over that of his brother. The results were as realistic as if the actor was still here.

To get the shots, Wan poured over hours of footage from Walker’s previous performances, and then provided the footage to WETA, which then digitized it and used it to finish the needed shots.

Making Virtual Actors
Other actors who have been recreated digitally include John Wayne, Bruce Lee, Marilyn Monroe, Oliver Reed, Jeff Bridges and Fred Astaire.

In fact, it’s now common practice for some studios to digitally scan actors prior to the start of film production. The reason? For video games and complex stunt sequences, it’s much safer to place a digital face over a stuntman than attach Vin Diesel to the side of a car or an airplane.

The results? A virtual likeness of an actor that filmmakers could use 10, 20, even 50 years later.

The digital re-creation of the late Bruce Lee advertises whiskey in China.

It’s a topic that hasn’t gone unnoticed in Hollywood. Recently it was revealed that the late actor Robin Williams restricted the use of his image for 25 years.

We’ve all been there, watching a film when an amazing special effect blows your mind, leaving you to wonder:

“How did they do that?”

Well, several years back, I started asking fellow editors and educators this very question – and again and again I heard the same response: After Effects. Want to motion track? After Effects. Want to green screen? After Effects. Want color correction? After Effects. Want an intergalactic light saber fight scene with explosions and an amazing 3D camera move? After Effects.

Essentially, when looking back at my early AE efforts, I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that I slowed my own progress by forming some common AE misconceptions. So, for those of you just setting out with AE (or hoping to some day), following these AE tips will make your experience much better:

Tip #1: Master your DV basics first. As a longtime editor, this was the only thing I had going for me when I started with AE – and probably the only thing that kept me going early on. Basically, if terms like “24fps,” “interlacing,” “NTSC” or “compression” are entirely new to you, help yourself out by visiting some useful websites that define such basic DV terms and concepts:

For just the bare bones of DV, you can start with the Wikipedia DVT overview.

For the hardcore user, check out some extremely thorough Adobe DV primers.

Tip #2: Know what After Effects is (and is not) for. Think of AE as a dedicated special effects application for individual shots and short animations – and here’s the critical part: you typically perfect these shots in AE and then export them to your preferred editing application. In other words, AE is a great enhancement to (but not a replacement of) your editing software. This is really important because AE is not really designed to: capture footage, make a bunch of tight cuts, work with transitions, etc. as you would with Final Cut, Premiere Pro, etc. Because AE is dedicated to special effects, it is appropriately different in many respects and truly does have a logical structure and work flow. Embrace these differences (and the rationale for them) and you’ll be far less likely to fall into the common trap of wondering, “Why doesn’t AE work like my editing software?”

Tip #3: Learn just enough of the AE keyboard shortcuts to be dangerous…and realize that this does not mean that many. While certain shortcuts are essential to AE, most are simply there to save you from a deep dive into the pull-down menus and an extra click or two. Do not feel that you need to know a hundred of these to be an AE editor. But it certainly helps to know some of them, especially these:

When getting started:

With a new project, import a video clip and drag it to the comp timeline. This is often preferable to creating a composition first because it auto-creates a new composition that matches the chosen video clip’s duration, scale, frame rate and pixel ratio.

When making edits in the composition timeline:

Page Down moves the current time one frame forward.

Page Up moves the current time one frame backward.

; toggles the view to a full zoom in or out at your current time.

Ctrl + [ trims the “in” point(s) of the selected layer(s) to the current time – and as you might expect, it has a twin.

Ctrl + ] trims the “out” point(s) of the selected layer(s) to the current time.

Ctrl +D duplicates selected layers or effects.

Ctrl + Shift + D duplicates and cuts a layer at the current time. It’s as close to a razor tool as you will find in AE.

When animating/keyframing:

U shows only the keyframed attributes of a selected layer.

Alt + Drag selected keyframes stretches (or squeezes) the distribution of selected keyframe groups uniformly. This can save a ton of time when retiming a complex multi-layered effect. Start simple, and I mean super-simple.

Tip #4: Take a class at a great school. The incredible range of AE means that its structure has a corresponding range of complexity – which can be tricky to figure out. I am all for books, Web-based tutorials, DVDs, etc., but there is simply nothing like project-based, hands-on learning, like students get in After Effects courses at Digital Media Academy. Moreover, having learned differing approaches from so many AE experts over the years, I have worked hard to come up with a streamlined approach to learning AE that is enjoyable, easy, and avoids the mistakes that so many of us have made when first starting out.

I’ve come a long way from my initial problems, and am proud to now say that After Effects is now my favorite application to use and to teach. Even though I took the long way to get there, I am now completely psyched to have clients pleased with AE results…and students creating dazzling special effects.

Written by Kevin McMahon