Actors That Have Been Digitally Re-created for Films With CGI

By Vince Matthews

Furious 7 is the latest and possibly final film in the “Fast and Furious” franchise and it’s gotten great reviews. It’s also the latest film to have its production temporarily halted by the death of a major actor.

Actor Paul Walker died midway through production. To complete the movie, filmmakers needed to get creative, using computer-generated imagery (CGI). And it’s not the first time an actor has been digitally re-created for film:

Paul Walker
Paul Walker passed away before he could finish his scenes for Furious 7, which according to production notes, consisted of more than 40 percent of the film.

Paul-Walker-computer-generated-digital-CGI
A digital version of Paul Walker’s face appears in this finished scene for Furious 7. (Image: Universal Studios)

Director James Wan re-worked the script for Furious 7 to write Paul Walker’s character out of the franchise and, at the same time, give the actor a proper tribute and send-off.

Paul’s brothers Caleb and Cody were used as body doubles for the late actor. How did they create a digital Paul Walker for Furious 7? Peter Jackson’s WETA Digital developed a 3D model of Walker’s face and composited it onto the face of his brothers.

Jeff Bridges
For Tron: Legacy, Disney hired Digital Domain to create a younger version of Jeff Bridges. Motion capture was used to capture Bridges’ facial expressions and that formed the visual foundation of a younger, digitized version of his self.

computer-generated-younger-Jeff-Bridges-Tron-Legacy
Computers digitally created a younger Jeff Bridges for Tron: Legacy. (Image: Walt Disney Studios)

computer-generated-Jeff-Bridges-Tron-Legacy
Digital Domain used motion capture to digital reproduce the actor’s facial expressions. (Image: Walt Disney Studios/Digital Domain)

While Bridges was still alive and well, the story dictated that he was also 28 years younger for a virtual version of his younger self. The computer-generated version of a younger Bridges was so impressive, the CGI version and real actor even meet in the film for a face-to-face standoff.

Audrey Hepburn
Vintage Hollywood star (Breakfast at Tiffany’s) made an appearance 21 years after her death for a 2014 Galaxy chocolate commercial.

Audrey-Hepburn-digital-cgi
This computer-generated Audrey Hepburn appeared in a commercial 21 years after her death.

The image and effects company Framestore (which is currently producing visual effects for Netflix’s Daredevil) used film footage and built a 3D computer-generated model of the actress.

Oliver Reed
Once considered for the role of James Bond, British leading man Oliver Reed was a prolific actor with more than 50 films to his credit. Reed died of a heart attack while filming the Academy-Award-winning Gladiator, starring Russell Crowe.

computer-generated-Oliver-Reed
The late Oliver Reed appears in this scene from Gladiator, thanks to CGI.

Several of Reed’s scenes in Gladiator were completed with computer-generated versions of the actor and, in one instance, a mannequin stood in for the actor.

Bruce Lee
The Enter the Dragon star died tragically at a very young 32 years of age, yet his legacy as a martial arts master lives on. Most recently, the fighter and actor was digitally reincarnated for a whiskey commercial in China.

digital-Bruce-Lee-
This digital Bruce Lee sells whiskey in China.

Another computer-generated likeness of Bruce Lee was set to make an appearance in Ip Man 3 (starring Mike Tyson), but the firm that owns Lee’s likeness, Bruce Lee Enterprises, stopped a digital Bruce Lee from appearing in the film.

Brandon Lee
The son of Bruce Lee also tragically at a young age (28), while on set shooting The Crow. The production team scrambled to rewrite the film through flashbacks and narration, even going so far to use the relatively new technology of computers to digitally place Lee’s face onto that of a stunt double, in order to complete Lee’s remaining scenes.

computer-generated-brandon-lee
An on-set accident ended Brandon Lee’s life and sent producers scrambling to finish the movie.

Marlon Brando
For Superman Returns, Director Brian Singer wanted to pay homage to the original Christopher-Reeve-era “Superman” films by bringing back some of the original flavor of the films, including actors like Marlon Brando, who had been dead for a few years. So, special effects house Rhythm & Hues re-created the actor’s head for his Fortress of Solitude speech.

computer-generated-Marlon-Brando
To bring the deceased actor back to life, Marlon Brando was digitally re-created using computers.

When asked by IGN in a 2006 interview about Marlon Brando’s appearance in Superman Returns, director Singer said he thought Brando would “find it very amusing. This stuff fascinated him. I mean, I think they let them scan his body for a video game. I think he’d be fascinated by the idea of playing a scene almost from the grave. I think his sense of humor, from what I sensed, is that he would have been amused.”

The Problem with Virtual Actors
While some think it’s great to see actors returning to the screen through the magic of computer generated 3D models created in Maya, there are a lot of questions that arise when Hollywood talks of re-creating a long gone talent.

For starters, would the actor approve of how their image is being used, especially if it’s being used to sell some product or service? Not only that, but an actor’s trademark features (like Hepburn’s trademark smile) are extremely hard to recreate digitally, and some directors like Francis Lawrence don’t want to do it all.

Bruce Lee sells whiskey from a skyscraper in China…42 years after his death.

“I just think to try to fake a Philip Seymour Hoffman performance would have been catastrophic and I would never want to do that,” Lawrence said, shortly after the passing of the actor, who still had scenes to shoot for the upcoming The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2.

The truth is that many actors, like Brando and Arnold Schwarzenegger, turn their likeness into brands that can still be worth a lot of money well after they’re gone. And to bring those actors back to life with technology currently takes digital artists that know how to create a 3D model and animate it.

For the audience, we love these actors and the characters they create, and often find it hard to let them go. So while we’d much rather see him fighting an army of ninjas, seeing Bruce Lee sell whiskey from a skyscraper in China is also pretty darn cool…especially 42 years after his death.