The team at Weta Digital, the video effects studio that worked on The Lord of the Rings films and other CGI-filled epics, had their toughest assignment ever last year: finishing Furious 7 without the film's lead actor, Paul Walker, who passed away in a car crash on November 30, 2013. Their work was widely lauded, and the film's final scene pretty much made the whole planet cry. Now, thanks to new interviews and the work of some very patient Internet sleuths, the past week has brought the web a much better understanding of just how big this accomplishment was.
Although Walker's death was national news and media outlets did report that some scenes used CGI versions of Paul Walker's face over body doubles (often Paul's younger brother Cody), the extent of the replacement is just now becoming clear, as well as the fact that many shots included a fully digital Walker (as opposed to a digital face superimposed on to another actor's body). These included any and all Dubai scenes, and scenes shot with Jordana Brewster, who plays his wife.
Last week, Variety ran an excellent piece interviewing the talented folks at Weta Digital, including effects supervisor Martin Hill, about the process and just how challenging it was. Although Furious 7 is unlikely to win Best Picture at the Oscars as Vin Diesel has suggested, the work they did with Walker, which they say would have been impossible if it had happened a year earlier, certainly merits many technical awards.
Hill says the first goal was to create a photo-real digital human who can believably move and act onscreen. “That’s a high bar in itself, to create that. Beyond that, this actor was known to millions of fans, and this had to be Paul Walker — more specifically, Walker in character as Brian O’Conner.”
For a scene in Los Angeles, the principal characters all stand in a line, and Walker’s character “is giving meaningful looks to the others and delivering dialog, and he’s full frame. That visual effects work had to be invisible,” says Hill. They could have digitally placed Walker’s face on another person’s body, but the artists said audiences would have sensed the difference.
This is all the more amazing when you consider that the first time this was ever really attempted was only in 2000 with Gladiator after Oliver Reed died of a heart attack while filming (he played Maximus's gladiatorial mentor). Still, they only had to digitally insert him into one scene, which was at night, and he looked weirdly translucent, AND IT WAS AMAZING AT THE TIME.
Looking at these pictures from Furious 7 makes you realize just how often and seamlessly "VFX Walker," as the team called him, was used. These pictures are also by no means a complete catalog of the more than 350 shots Weta Digital worked on. Awards are definitely in order, as well as thanks to the redditor who put together this album (some of which you've seen throughout this article):
Since you're probably already hearing it in your head at this point, here's the music video for "See You Again" with the final drive and the tribute to Paul Walker. If you're really a masochist, here's the tribute video the Fast & Furious team put out right after he passed away.