The seventh Fast and the Furious movie might have ended up being as unmemorable as Rocky V—just another link in the profit chain. But then Paul Walker died mid-production. Now, the lead effects guru explains in The Hollywood Reporter how Paul Walker remained in the Furious 7 picture.
When Walker died in a crash in 2013, the tragedy reverberated through the car community. The Fast and the Furious franchise may be to automotive realism what McDonald's french fries are to potatoes, but Walker was a genuine gearhead, noted for his love of the Nissan Skyline and the E36-chassis BMW M3. When he died, he left a hole in that community, as well as an unfinished movie.
Finishing Furious 7 required significant technical knowhow and a lighter touch than the usual explosions and “danger to manifold” spray cheese. It might have been an impossible task, but with the help of Walker’s two brothers, the visual effects team at Weta Digital were able to create hundreds of shots involving Walker’s character, Brian O'Conner.
Using Caleb and Cody Walker as stand-ins, the VFX team made digital scans of the brothers and grafted a CGI representation of Paul's face into every scene. Next, they studied similar footage to get lighting and skin tones right, touching up the footage digitally for maximum realism.
Then came the really tricky bit: adding in dialogue. The sound team stitched together Walker's lines from existing recordings and presented the VFX team with dialogue to animate to.
Joe Letteri, who headed the effects team, laid out the challenge to The Hollywood Reporter. “You'd see small changes in the corners of his mouth that would telegraph what he was thinking, or in the corners of the eyes. These are really small details, but if you get them wrong, you feel that there’s something fake about the performance.”
Nuance isn't something Fast and the Furious normally does, but here paying tribute to the late actor required hours of study and intricate work to get Walker's mannerisms exactly right. “Other details involved placing the stubble on his beard correctly,” Letteri added. “The length and placement of every individual hair—because when that was off, it didn't feel like Paul.”
The result was a touching tribute to one of the Fast and the Furious family. The effects are digital, but the work, and the sentiment, are very real.