The magic of modern cinema is a wonderful thing. With advancements in computer-generated imagery, filmmakers can put virtually anything they imagine on screen. Many creators have taken advantage of this (for better or for worse), bringing fantastic creatures and vast worlds to life in ways audiences never dreamed of. They even used this technology to replace people.
Sometimes when an actor died before completing a project, the visual effects team took over. In some cases, the public can’t help but wonder, “Why bother? On other occasions, although it is necessary to finish things because of the work done and to pay tribute to the late actor.
ten Bruce Lee – Game of Death
The first example rightly involves one of the greatest movie icons in history. At the age of 32, Bruce Lee mysteriously died of cerebral edema. Before his death, he conceived Game of death as a passion project to showcase your personalized martial arts style. His death cut that vision short, and much of the footage he had previously shot was lost, leaving little to work with.
Along with plenty of rewrites, unconvincing voiceovers, and editing tricks, the finished product used rudimentary computer techniques to bring Bruce back to the big screen. Namely, the filmmakers stuck a photo of Lee’s head on someone else’s body. Surprise, surprise – it looks ridiculously wrong. It was the early 1970s, after all.
9 Brandon Lee – The Crow
Sadly, a curse seems to befall the Lee family. While filming the fantasy action movie The crow, Bruce’s son, Brandon, was accidentally killed by a propeller pistol. However, this loss of Lee was less noticeable in the final product.
Not only was the body doubled and the more advanced CGI sold the illusion, but the seams were even more obscured by the film’s stylistic direction, dark aesthetic, and extensive makeup. In addition, the actor had already completed most of his scenes before his death. The filmmakers had fewer gaps to fill, which led to one of the most compelling digi-doubles in movie history.
8 Oliver Reed – Gladiator
Next to Richard Harris, Oliver Reed was by far the most famous name attached to Ridley Scott’s Gladiator. He played Antonius Proximo, the scowling trainer of hopes of Roman gladiators, and he luckily shot most of his scenes. Sadly, a heart attack took his life before he could end.
For the final moments of screen time, the filmmakers created a digital composite of Reed’s face from old footage and placed it over a body duplicate. This allowed the actor to appear posthumously in two more scenes. With details and shadows covering all the gaps, the effect remains an impressive sight to this day.
7 Marlon Brando – The Return of Superman
This Superman film strives to be the successor to Richard Donner’s original duology. Music, aesthetics, heroic reverence, and the occasional silliness all point to these classics. While Christopher Reeve himself unfortunately cannot return, Marlon Brando’s Jor-El makes an appearance.
A simulation of Superman’s father appears at Fortress of Solitude, much like the previous films. Using old images and computer compositions, the filmmakers project Brando’s image onto the vast crystal structure. The finished product is extremely convincing. While this is in part due to the image being partially obscured, the success mostly hinges on the solid work of the VFX artists. It is as if Jor-El has truly returned in some form or another to impart his wisdom. Life imitates art.
6 Jack Lord – Hawaii Five-0
The original Hawaii 5-0 was among the most popular crime shows in television history, in part because of the charisma of star Jack Lord. When CBS remade the series in 2010, Jack Lord had already died of heart failure in 1998. He couldn’t come back as protagonist Steve McGarrett or any other character. This made his eventual cameo all the more surprising.
Well in the run for the new series, Alex O’Loughlin’s McGarrett contemplates his future as a cop, and a mysterious man appears and gives him a pep talk. Create a digital composite of Lord from his final season, and the two 5-0 leaders speak miraculously. The former star’s face looks a bit too lively, but it’s textured and expressive enough to get the job done, especially in the dark church setting. Plus, it would be hard to beat on a TV budget.
5 Paul Walker – Furious 7
Much of Walker’s career has been defined by his lead role in the Fast and furious franchise. It made it tragically ironic that a car crash took his life halfway through the filming of the Seventh Entry.
To get around this unfortunate accident, the filmmakers used various techniques. They set to work combing through existing footage, from films and interviews, to reconstruct Walker’s likeness for a body double. At the same time, the FX team also used the Walker brothers as benchmarks. This hodgepodge adds to a realistic whole, delivering a sendoff that has satisfied longtime fans.
4 Peter Cushing – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
The first one Star wars the Disney spin-off takes place shortly before the original classic. As such, the filmmakers saw fit to bring back certain characters to strengthen the continuity. The most important of these is Grand Moff Tarkin. The character has appeared in animated TV shows before, but this film featured a photorealistic recreation of Peter Cushing, who died in 1994, alongside live-action actors.
Rome Actor Guy Henrie donned motion capture tech to portray the Imperial Commander on set. The FX artists then used Cushing’s facial molds to glue his image onto Henri’s head. The result is remarkably detailed, but strangely disturbing. Dead eyes and lack of movement only cement the plastic look of this new Tarkin.
3 Carrie Fisher – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story & Star Wars: The Rise Of Skywalker
The second digitized Thief one star was Princess Leia herself. In the end, the heroes convey the Death Star’s plans to the Rebel Leader, who quickly turns to the camera and proclaims his hope for the future. Sadly, FX artists clearly haven’t spent as much time on this as with Tarkin. Carrie Fisher passed away from cardiac arrest just as the movie was released, so it’s hard to look at this porcelain doll without grinding our teeth.
A few years later, computers brought the late actress back for a front door again. The Rise of Skywalker not only used Awakening the Force footage to insert old Leia into the story, but a flashback reveals a young Leia training as a Jedi. As before, however, the effect is unfortunately poorly done.
2 Laurence Olivier – Sky Captain and the world of tomorrow
Many aspects of this dieselpunk movie are suitably retro, as the whole story is a throwback to the swashbuckling adventures of years gone by. This likely fueled the decision to bring back one of the genre’s big stars. Laurence Olivier definitely had the classic swashbuckling of the enigmatic mad scientist unveiled at the end of the film. The only problem was that he had been dead for fifteen years, having died of kidney failure in 1989.
To make this cameo, the creators used archived footage from the BBC to create a digital composite of Olivier’s face. It’s a floating electric head, so it would be hard to gauge how convincing it could be. However, actors generally do not use their full expressive repertoire during interviews. As such, Olivier’s posthumous performance here seems a bit stiff.
1 Roy Scheider – Iron Cross
For his latest film, the Jaws The star returned to the badass roles of her early career, playing a Nazi-hunter cop at wit’s end. While Scheider completed most of his scenes, complications from a staph infection prevented him from filming the final pieces.
This time the filmmakers used a mix of practical and digital effects. They constructed a latex mask of Scheider’s chiseled features and placed it over the double body. Editing with CGI allowed the audience to see the actor one last time. It’s a pretty fluid job, probably because digital technology doesn’t do all of the heavy lifting. Scheider’s face is physically in front of the camera; all the folks at FX have to do is improve it.
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