Modern cinema magic is a beautiful thing. With recent advancements in computer-generated imagery, studios can now put pretty much anything they can imagine into their films. Numerous filmmakers have taken full advantage of this – with varying results – bringing to life vast, vibrant worlds and fantastical creatures that previous generations never could have even dreamed of. Not only that, but on occasion, they’ve even used these modern digitally-assisted techniques to bring the dead back from the grave.
When an actor passes away before a project can be completed, the visual effects department is oftentimes called in to remedy this lamentable situation. Sometimes this leaves viewers wondering why they even went through all of that effort in the first place, while on other occasions, invoking suck methods is necessary to wrap things up after a significant amount of work has already been invested into a project. The end results can be a fitting homage to a late actor who’s life was cut short much too soon.
Join us as we take a look at several instances where film studios used CGI to bring deceased actors back to life.
Facts Verse Presents: Dead Actors Who Were Added Into Movies with CGI
At 32, actor and martial arts icon Bruce Lee unexpectedly died from cerebral edema. Before his death, Lee was working on his passion project, Game of Death. The film, at least in his vision, was meant to be the ultimate showcase of his signature martial arts style. Sadly, his premature death threatened to put an abrupt end to the execution of that vision, and much of the footage that he had previously shot for the film ended up getting lost, leaving very little for anyone hoping to salvage the project to work with.
To complete Game of Deaath, the film’s script was given a few extensive rewrites. Unconvincing body doubles and a bit of archaic camera trickery was also used, but for one of the first times in history computer techniques were also used to help bring Bruce back to life. Primarily, the filmmakers cut out a picture of Lee’s head and pasted it onto a doubles body. Not surprisingly, the end result looked very unnatural and hokey. This was the early ’70s after all! What would you expect? Photoshop hadn’t even been invented yet!
Even though Princess Leia returned to the Star Wars universe via CGI in the prequel spin-off feature Rogue One which hit theaters within days of the actress Carrie Fisher’s passing, that instance doesn’t really qualify as a posthumous comeback seeing as it was created before Fisher’s death. The actress evidently had watched the scene herself before it was released.
That being said, Fisher’s appearance in Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker, which was released three years later, does fit the bill as it included several flashback sequences in which a younger Leia and an older Fisher shared the screen. Though many might assume that the film merely repurposed old footage from Episode VII or VIII, according to an interview with Visual FX supervisor Roger Guyett, Leia was only able to be brought back through highly advanced CGI techniques.
Guyett revealed that in episode IX, archival footage of Leia’s face was combined with digital assets such as hair and body features. This wasn’t particularly difficult for the FX team to accomplish in scenes that didn’t feature dialogue, but they had to tread a fine line to ensure that they weren’t creating a new performance. At the end of the day, they wanted to make sure that it was still Fisher’s original delivery that was receiving the brunt of the audience’s focus.
Actor Paul Walker was killed in a car accident before he was able to complete Fast & Furious 7. Universal Studios was left with a bit of a conundrum. They could either scrap the film or attempt to complete it using CGI. As you can probably guess, they chose to go the latter route.
Unfortunately, the majority of Walker’s role in the film was incomplete, so first, the script needed to be heavily doctored to work around scenes that would be impossible with Walker gone. To create new scenes that would tie in with the story for his character, Walker’s brother was used as a stand-in. Advanced CGI magic was then utilized to recreate Paul Walker’s face on top of his brother’s bodily performance.
It almost seems as if the Lee family is cursed because during the filming of the fantasy action film The Crow, Bruce Lee’s son Brandon was shockingly killed by a prop gun. In this instance, however, Brandon’s loss was far less noticeable in the final film than his father’s absence was in Game of Death.
Body doubles and more technologically advanced CGI was used to sell the illusion, but beyond that, gaps were filled in by tapping into the film’s stylistic direction. By leaning heavily upon the movie’s dark aesthetic and with careful use of makeup, it almost seemed as if the final product was the one intended when Lee was still alive and well.
Fortunately in this case, Lee had already finished filming the majority of his scenes. The holes that remained were filled in with some of the most convincing CGI work that was available at the time.
Aside from Richard Harris, Oliver Reed was one of the most famous names to appear in the credits of Ridley Scott’s award-winning Gladiator flick. In the action-packed movie, Reed played Antonius Proximo, a perpetually nonplussed trainer who helped guide the Roman gladiator participants to victory – or their deaths. Fortunately, in this case, much like Brandon Lee’s, he had already finished shooting most of his scenes before passing away from a heart attack deep into the film’s production.
For the last few minutes of screentime, the VFX department used a digital composite of Reed’s face salvaged from old footage and affixed it to a body double. This method allowed Reed to be posthumously featured in two scenes that wrapped up his story arc. Even to this day, the finished product was nothing short of impressive, thanks to some careful detail and shadow work.
Superman Returns was supposed to be the successor to Richard Donner’s original Superman film and it’s sequel. The film’s score, aesthetic, and cheesiness all point to those 1970s classics. While Christopher Reeve sadly couldn’t be brought back from the great beyond, Marlon Brando’s character Jor-El did make a brief cameo appearance in Returns.
Much like in the previous Superman films, a simulation of Superman’s dad made an appearance at the Fortress of Solitude. To achieve this, the effects team used old footage and computer techniques to project Brando’s image onto the crystal display. The result of these efforts was quite convincing, and while that’s partly because the image was somewhat obscured, the success primarily comes down to some world-class work on the VFX team’s part.
Skycaptain and the World of Tomorrow was a very technically impressive film from the early 2000s. Many aspects of this steampunk film were expectedly retro. After all, the flick was supposed to be a loving homage to the swashbuckling adventures of yesteryear.
This vision likely influenced the filmmaker’s decision to bring back one of the greatest stars of the Golden Age of cinema, Laurence Olivier. When Laurence was revealed to be the eccentric mad scientist at the center of the film’s conflict during it’s final scenes, given the actor’s previous work, it only seemed natural. The only issue was that he had been dead already for more than fifteen years. Skycaptain hit theaters in 2004, while Olivier died of kidney failure in 1989.
To give Laurence his big cameo, the filmmakers used archival footage from the BBC to craft a composite of his face. He’s seen in the film as a giant floating electrical head subtly reminiscent of the villainous Andross from the Star Fox video game series.
Given the fantastical context of Oliver’s cameo, it’s hard to gauge just how convincing his appearance was. It’s also worth noting that stars rarely use their full range of expressions in interviews, and since that’s where the majority of the footage used to bring him back came from, his postmortem performance felt a tad bit stiff.
In his final film, this actor, best known for his role in Jaws, played a Nazi-hunting police officer who found himself at the end of his rope so to speak. While Scheider was able to finish filming the majority of his scenes, he died from complications of a staph infection before the film could be completed.
In this instance, filmmakers were able to use a combination of traditional and digital effects to give the audience one final look at the late actor. They used a latex mask of Scheider’s face and placed it on a body double for several scenes. They then went into the studio and used CGI to give the rubber mask a more convincing look.
In the end, what we got was fairly seamless and unnoticeable. This is likely because the CGI work didn’t have to do all of the hard work on it’s own. Combining practical and technologically advanced techniques ended up giving us a much more believable final product than if CGI alone was used to bring Scheider back.
In the original Star Wars film A New Hope and it’s two sequels, filmmaker George Lucas cast mostly unknown talent with two notable exceptions, renowned actors Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing.
Cushing was best known for portraying Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing in a dozen or so films from Hammer Horror Productions. In Star Wars, Cushing played Grand Moff Tarkin. In 1994, he died at the age of 81.
While he had been gone for more than two decades at the time, in 2016, Star Wars: Rogue One director Gareth Edwards resurrected Cushing for one last performance in the role of Tarkin. Using motion capture tech and vocal work by Harry Potter actor Guy Henry coupled with a heavy dose of CGI, Grand Moff Tarkin was brought back into the film which was set just prior to Star Wars Episode IV.
Reaction to Cushing’s post-death appearance was split among critics and fans. Some were thrilled to see Peter back on the big screen, while others found his addition to be unconvincing. Still yet, others found the creative move to bring Cushing back as both disrespectful and unnecessary.
With that, we’ll go ahead and wrap this video up, but before you move on to watching another one of our facts-packed videos, take a moment to show us a little support by hopping in the comments and sharing your thoughts on using CGI to bring deceased actors back from the dead.
Do you think that films should be abandoned if the actors featured in them pass away before they can be completed, or do you think it’s acceptable to finish up these films using CGI? On the one hand, it could be argued that this is the best way to honor the fallen stars who had already invested so much of their heart and soul into such projects. On the other hand, it’s easy to see why many find this practice to be disrespectful and even exploitative.
Let us know what you think, and as always, thanks for watching!