The news that James Dean is being resurrected through CGI to “star” in a new film despite dying in 1955 has been met with fierce criticism online, but Hollywood has form when it comes this sort of thing.
Down the years Hollywood producers have used ingenious ways to recreate sadly departed actors on screen to give them a fitting send off.
Paul Walker – Fast & Furious 7
Walker had six and a half Fast & Furious movies under his belt when he died in a car crash in 2014, leaving a huge question mark hanging over the seventh instalment. Universal did the decent thing and put the movie on hold while they decided how to handle the situation, ultimately coming up with a solution that would make Paul Walker’s fans and family happy.
Walker’s character, Brian was able to make a dignified exit at the movie’s finale, thanks mainly to footage the actor already shot, some impressive facial CGI, and stand-in contributions from Paul’s two lookalike brothers, Caleb and Cody. We cried. You cried. Everyone cried. Mission accomplished.
Peter Cushing – Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Set just before the events of the first Star Wars film, Rogue One centred around the Rebellion’s theft of the Death Star plans, making an appearance from Peter Cushing’s character Grand Moff Tarkin seemingly unavoidable. Undeterred by the actor’s death in 1994, Industrial Light and Magic built a new performance around stand in actor Guy Henry, employing motion-capture and a facial-expression tracker to animate footage and photographs of the Hammer star.
“Essentially, we’re using the computer graphics as a tool to alter his appearance,” VFX supervisor John Knoll explained to Yahoo in 2016. “And this was done in consultation and cooperation with his estate. So we wouldn’t do this if the estate had objected or didn’t feel comfortable with this idea.”
Audrey Hepburn - Galaxy TV advert
The Oscar-winning VFX team responsible for Gravity were tasked with the brief of recreating a 19-year-old Audrey Hepburn for a Galaxy chocolate bar advert. The Breakfast At Tiffanys star’s face was an entirely CGI creation mapped onto the physical performance of two stand in actresses who filmed the advert for real on Italy’s Amalfi coast.
“Once back at Framestore HQ, the lookalike’s FACS (facial action coding system) scan was used to build a CG facial rig: a replica of the lookalike’s face that provided the foundations for our digitally reimagined Audrey,” Framestore’s Mike McGee told The Guardian.
They watched the actresses back catalogue to recreate her facial movements and tics as realistically possible.
Oliver Reed – Gladiator
Olly Reed was always a liability, given his love of all things liquid, but everyone in Hollywood just assumed he was immortal. Not so. Reed died of a heart attack while shooting Ridley Scott’s Gladiator in Malta in 1999, leaving the director with quite the quandary – with three weeks left and a few major scenes left for Reed’s character Proximo, Scott was in quite the pickle. The director ended up compositing earlier scenes of Reed with new scenes shot opposite Russell Crowe – it’s a seamless experience, although rumour has it Reed was replaced with a mannequin in one shot.
Bruce Lee – Game Of Death
When Bruce Lee was killed by a deadly reaction to an over-the-counter headache tablet, it ended the life of the most spectacular martial arts superstar cinema had ever seen. Bruce Lee’s career, however, would continue in Game Of Death, Lee’s final movie but one of which he only managed to shoot the first half. Bruce’s death effectively put the kibosh on Game Of Death’s proposed plot, so an alternate version was put into production, where Lee was replaced by stand-ins wearing wigs and beards to mask their faces – Bruce only appears in 11 minutes of footage.
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In some scenes, cardboard cut-outs of Lee were used, but the filmmakers still managed to secure shots of Bruce’s actual corpse from his open-casket funeral to insert into a scene where Lee’s character fakes his own death. Classy.
Brandon Lee – The Crow
Lee’s death, following the death of his father, had conspiracy theorists racing to claim it was the result of unpaid debts or shady mafioso types, but the simple fact is, it was an unprepared prop gun that ended Brandon’s life so abruptly while shooting The Crow. Director Alex Proyas had most of the movie in the can, but he ordered rewrites on the few short scenes remaining.
Close-ups were achieved by digitally mapping Brandon Lee’s face onto a stunt double (future John Wick director Chad Stahelski), while stand-ins wearing make-up got Proyas through the shoot.
River Phoenix – Dark Blood
Phoenix had completed approximately 80% of his final movie when he took a lethal drugs overdose in 1993, leaving director George Sluizer with a movie that was tantalisingly close to being finished. 'Dark Blood’ was officially abandoned three weeks after Phoenix’s death but Sluizer kept the footage, hoping he could one day finish; at one point, he had planned to cast Joaquin Phoenix to provide the voiceover for his older brother, but he was refused.
In 2012, Sluizer released a new edit of the movie, with his own stark narration over a set film stills filling in the gaps that Phoenix left behind, and it was surprisingly well reviewed when it played at the Berlin Film Festival. Sluizer himself died in 2014.
John Candy – Wagon’s East
The Canadian funnyman died following a heart attack during shooting of this comedy Western. Candy had completed most of his work when he died during the final few days of production, but filmmakers still needed to complete several scenes, which they achieved by re-using footage from earlier points in the movie.
At one point, the same shot of Candy pouring his drink on the floor is used twice, the second time in a different scene composited on a different background, while men with similar-sounding voices were used to complete Candy’s voiceover narration.
Bela Lugosi – Plan 9 From Outer Space
Not even death could stop Bela Lugosi from making bad movies – the actor best known for playing Dracula seemingly had a thing for the afterlife. Lugosi suffered a heart attack in 1956 while shooting the infamously naff cult classic sci-fi, but camp director extraordinaire Ed Wood wasn’t deterred and reshot Lugosi’s scenes where possible.
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As a bizarre show of respect, he even asked the Lugosi family chiropractor to shoot some of Bela’s scenes, even though he bore no resemblance to the man whatsoever.
Peter Sellers – The Trail Of The Pink Panther
It’s a unique film on this list in that the dead actor involved died before filming had even started – 18 months before. The Trail Of The Pink Panther was a cheap and nasty cash-grab, cobbled together with old footage of Peter Sellers in costume and deleted scenes from previous Pink Panther movies, presented as flashbacks. With Sellers out of the picture, director Blake Edwards padded the story out using doubles wearing heavy face bandages. He was sued by Sellers’ wife, Lynne Frederick; unsurprisingly, she won.
Roy Scheider – Iron Cross
Digital recreations of dead movie star faces are all well and good if you’re a blockbuster with money to burn, but what are the little movies to do when an important cast member perishes? With just one important scene left to film at the time of star Roy Scheider’s death, the makers of Holocaust revenge thriller Iron Cross improvised and whipped up a latex mask, painstakingly recreated to match the Jaws actor’s features precisely.
Filmed from afar, you’d never guess you weren’t looking at the man himself. Variety said in its review: “there are no detectable fillers or giveaway moments suggesting production difficulties.”