How 'Furious 7' brought the late Paul Walker back to life

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A version of this story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

In the pre-digital era, Paul Walker's death on Nov. 30, 2013, would have made finishing a movie like Furious 7 a daunting task. Since several of his key scenes had not yet been filmed, recasting and reshoots would have been necessary. But digital filmmaking techniques have changed all that. While Universal was mum about exactly how Walker's scenes were finished when the movie, which went on to gross $1.7 billion worldwide, was released in April, now that it is a serious candidate for visual effects awards consideration, VFX supervisor Joe Letteri, from Peter Jackson's Weta Digital, is explaining exactly how they did it.

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How 'Furious 7' brought the late Paul Walker back to life
PAUL WALKER, an actor perhaps best known for his roles in the 'Fast and Furious' films died in a fiery car crash. He was 40 years old. Los Angeles County Sheriff found a car engulfed in flames when they responded to a report of a collision in the community of Valencia Two people who were found in the car were pronounced dead at the scene, Walker being a passenger in a friend's car, the accident occurred due to speed. Pictured: Jan. 19, 2006 - Actor PAUL WALKER stars in ' 2 Fast 2 Furious ''. (Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com via Alamy)
FILE - In this April 29, 2011 file photo, actor Paul Walker poses during the photo call of the movie "Fast and Furious 5," in Rome. Walker's daughter Meadow Rain Walker will live with her mother and a nanny, a court appointed attorney told a Los Angeles Superior Court commissioner during a hearing on Wednesday, May 28, 2014. Commissioner David Cowan dismissed a guardianship proceeding over the 15-year-old after hearing details about who will care for her. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini, File)
U.S. actor Paul Walker wears a creation from the Colcci summer collection at Sao Paulo Fashion Week in Sao Paulo, Brazil, Thursday, March 21, 2013. (AP Photo/Andre Penner)
Actors Paul Walker, left, and Vin Diesel pose for photographers after they won the award for best on-screen team for their work in the film "The Fast and the Furious" at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles, Saturday, June 1, 2002. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Actor Paul Walker smiles during the National Geographic Channel panel for "Second Annual Expedition Week" at the Television Critics Association summer press tour in Pasadena, Calif. on Wednesday, July 29, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
Actor Paul Walker, left, appears on stage during a taping for MTV's 'Total Request Live' show at the MTV Times Square Studios, Tuesday, Feb. 14, 2006, in New York. (AP Photo/Jeff Christensen)
In this Nov. 30, 2013 photo released by the Los Angeles County Sheriff Department on Tuesday, March 25, 2014, shows the wreckage of a Porsche that crashed into a light pole in Valencia, Calif. Crash investigators have determined that the car carrying "Fast & Furious" star Paul Walker was traveling approximately 90 mph when it lost control on a city street and smashed into a light pole, killing the actor and his friend Roger Rodas. A person who has reviewed the investigators’ report told The Associated Press that it concluded unsafe driving, not mechanical problems, caused the crash. The person requested anonymity because the report has not been officially released yet. (AP Photo/Los Angeles County Sheriff)
A fan writes messages on a giant poster during a memorial rally and car cruise in Valencia, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 to remember actor Paul Walker and his friend Roger Rodas, who died in a fiery car crash last Saturday. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
Messages on a helmet is placed at a memorial rally and car cruise in Valencia, Calif., Sunday, Dec. 8, 2013 to remember actor Paul Walker and his friend Roger Rodas, who died in a fiery car crash last Saturday. (AP Photo/Ringo H.W. Chiu)
File - PAUL WALKER, an actor perhaps best known for his roles in the 'Fast and Furious' films died in a fiery car crash. He was 40 years old. Los Angeles County Sheriff found a car engulfed in flames when they responded to a report of a collision in the community of Valencia Two people who were found in the car were pronounced dead at the scene, Walker being a passenger in a friend's car, the accident occurred due to speed. Pictured: Sept. 21, 2005 - Westwood, California, U.S. - Actor PAUL WALKER at the 'Into The Blue' Los Angeles Premiere held at Mann's Village Theatre. (Cre
File - PAUL WALKER, an actor perhaps best known for his roles in the 'Fast and Furious' films died in a fiery car crash. He was 40 years old. Los Angeles County Sheriff found a car engulfed in flames when they responded to a report of a collision in the community of Valencia Two people who were found in the car were pronounced dead at the scene, Walker being a passenger in a friend's car, the accident occurred due to speed. Pictured: Oct 09, 2006; Los Angeles, California, U.S. - Actor PAUL WALKER at the 'Flags Of Our Fathers' Los Angeles Premiere held at the Academy Of Motion
Actor Paul Walker poses during the photo call of the movie " Fast and Furious 5", in Rome Friday, April 29, 2011. (AP Photo/Andrew Medichini)
Sept. 1, 2001 - Scarborough, North Yorkshire, England - PAUL WALKER.ACTOR..DEAUVILLE, FRANCE.01/09/2001.BM4A28C(Credit Image: © Globe Photos/ZUMAPRESS.com)
Apr 24, 2011 - Moscow, Russia - Actor PAUL WALKER attends the premier of Russian Premier of Fast & Furious 5 (Fast Five) in Oktyabr cinema theatre of Moscow. (Credit Image: © PhotoXpress/ZUMAPRESS.com)
File - PAUL WALKER, an actor perhaps best known for his roles in the 'Fast and Furious' films died in a fiery car crash. He was 40 years old. Los Angeles County Sheriff found a car engulfed in flames when they responded to a report of a collision in the community of Valencia Two people who were found in the car were pronounced dead at the scene, Walker being a passenger in a friend's car, the accident occurred due to speed. Pictured: Nov. 26, 2003 - Westwood, California, U.S. - Actor PAUL WALKER at the 'Timeline' World Premiere, benefitting Hollygrove, held at Mann National The
LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 07: (EMBARGOED FOR PUBLICATION IN UK TABLOID NEWSPAPERS UNTIL 48 HOURS AFTER CREATE DATE AND TIME. MANDATORY CREDIT PHOTO BY DAVE M. BENETT/WIREIMAGE REQUIRED) Paul Walker (L) and Vin Diesel attend the World Premiere of 'Fast & Furious 6' at Empire Leicester Square on May 7, 2013 in London, England. (Photo by Dave M. Benett/WireImage)
Cast members from Universal Pictures' "The Fast and the Furious," from left, Paul Walker, Vin Diesel, and Michelle Rodriguez, arrive at the world premiere of the film Monday, June 18, 2001, in the Westwood section of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Weeks)
Actors Paul Walker, left, and Vin Diesel pose for photographers after they won the award for best on-screen team for their work in the film "The Fast and the Furious" at the MTV Movie Awards in Los Angeles, Saturday, June 1, 2002. (AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
In this film publicity still released by Universal Pictures, Paul Walker, left, and Vin Diesel, are shown in a scene from "Fast & Furious." Universal Pictures has delayed the release of “Fast & Furious 7” for almost a year following the death of Paul Walker. The studio announced early Monday, Dec. 23, 2013, that the “Fast & Furious” sequel will be released in April 2015, instead of July next year. Shooting on the film was about midway through when the 40-year-old Walker died in a car crash outside of Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Universal Pictures, Jaimie Trueblood)
Vin Diesel arrives at the LA Premiere of the "Fast & Furious 6" at the Gibson Amphitheatre on Tuesday, May 21, 2013 in Universal City, Calif. (Photo by Jordan Strauss/Invision/AP)
Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez, from left, from the cast of "Fast & Furious" present the award for breakthrough performance at the MTV Movie Awards in Sony Pictures Studio Lot in Culver City, Calif., on Sunday April 14, 2013. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision /AP)
Vin Diesel, left, Paul Walker, center, and Jordana Brewster, cast members in the upcoming film "Fast & Furious 6," take part in a Q&A session on the film at CinemaCon 2013 at Caesars Palace on Tuesday, April 16, 2013 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
Vin Diesel, Paul Walker, Jordana Brewster and Michelle Rodriguez, from left, from the cast of "Fast & Furious" present the award for breakthrough performance at the MTV Movie Awards in Sony Pictures Studio Lot in Culver City, Calif., on Sunday April 14, 2013. (Photo by Matt Sayles/Invision /AP)
U.S. actor Paul Walker waves during an event to promote his new film "Fast and Furious" in Mexico City, Friday, March. 27, 2009. (AP Photo/Marco Ugarte)
Actress Michelle Rodriguez arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast & Furious, in London's Leicester Square, Thursday, March 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)
Actress Jordana Brewster arrives for the UK Premiere of Fast & Furious, in London's Leicester Square, Thursday, March 19, 2009. (AP Photo/Joel Ryan)
Cast member Paul Walker arrives at the premiere of "Fast & Furious" in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Matt Sayles)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 02: Vin Diesel and Jordana Brewster are seen filming 'Fast & Furious 7' on June 02, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by TSM/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 02: Caleb Walker is seen filming 'Fast & Furious 7' on June 02, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by TSM/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
Vin Diesel and Paul Walker in a scene from the film 'The Fast And The Furious', 2001. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
Vin Diesel and Paul Walker racing against each other in a scene from the film 'The Fast And The Furious', 2001. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)
SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 6: (EUROPE AND AUSTRALASIA OUT) American actor Paul Walker poses at Woolloomooloo on September 6, 2001 in Sydney, Australia. Walker is in Sydney to promote his new film 'Fast and Furious'. (Photo by Sam Ruttyn/Newspix/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - JUNE 18: Actor Paul Walker attends 'The Fast and the Furious' Westwood Premiere on June 18, 2001 at the Mann Village Theatre in Westwood, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd./WireImage)
Schauspieler Vin Diesel Stellt Den Kinofilm 'The Fast And The Furious' In Hamburg Vor . (Photo by Franziska Krug/Getty Images)
Tara Reid (Photo by Tony Barson/WireImage)
Michelle Rodriguez, Rob Cohen, Jordana Brewster, Paul Walker, Vin Diesel (Photo by Tony Barson Archive/WireImage)
UNIVERSAL CITY, CA - JUNE 3: Actors Tyrese (L) and Paul Walker attend the world premiere of the film '2 Fast 2 Furious' on June 3, 2003 at Universal Studios, Hollywood. (Photo by Vince Bucci/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JUNE 3: Actors Tyrese, Devon Aoki and Paul Walker arrive at the premiere of '2 Fast 2 Furious' at the Universal Amphitheatre on June 3, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES - JUNE 3: Actors Tyrese (L) and Paul Walker arrive at the premiere of '2 Fast 2 Furious' at the Universal Amphitheatre on June 3, 2003 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Paul Walker during The World Premiere of '2 Fast 2 Furious' at Universal Amphitheatre in Universal City, California, United States. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/FilmMagic)
LONDON - JUNE 9: American actors Paul Walker and Eva Mendes arrive at the UK premiere of the film '2 Fast 2 Furious' at the Warner Brothers Cinema West End on June 9, 2003 in London. (Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images)
LONDON - JUNE 9: American actors Paul Walker and Eva Mendes arrive at the UK premiere of the film '2 Fast 2 Furious' at the Warner Brothers Cinema West End on June 9, 2003 in London. (Photo by Dave Benett/Getty Images)
Eva Mendes and Paul Walker Promote '2 Fast 2 Furious' (Photo by Lalo Yasky/WireImage)
Paul Walker (Photo by Lalo Yasky/WireImage)
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Because "we didn't have everything you would have wanted from a reference and research perspective, when Universal and the filmmakers regrouped and decided they did want to finish the film and the Paul Walker story, we thought at most we could get one scene of a digital Paul that maybe had some dialogue in it, and we'd have to find other ways to finish the story," says Letteri.

The general process: 1. Caleb Walker performs the scene. 2. Unused footage of Paul Walker in a similar shot, filmed at night. 3. Weta adjusts the lighting. 4. Caleb's head is replaced with Paul's in the final shot; Courtesy of NBC Universal

But then Walker's two brothers, Caleb and Cody, stepped forward, and, says Letteri, "allowed us to scan them and work with them in the scenes, it really gave us something as close to Paul as we could hope for. That got us a long way toward being able to create a realistic character and performance. Then we started to work on: What does the story really want to be, and can we do it? The scope of the work bloomed so we could tell the story and finish the character arc."

In the end, roughly 260 shots -; like shots following the car jump between Abu Dhabi's Etihad Towers -; involved performances by one of the two brothers, whose own faces were replaced by CG versions of Paul's. "We didn't do CG costumes and bodies because the brothers were close enough," Letteri says. In other scenes, a third actor, John Brotherton, also stood in for Paul.

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An additional 90 or so shots were completed with outtakes or older footage of Walker that had already been shot and which were then relit and repurposed -; such as the shots of Walker driving in a car alongside Vin Diesel in the film's closing moments.

To create the CG head replacement for Walker, Weta started by scanning the brothers as the closest reference. "Then we used Paul's footage for the final touch up to his model" to capture details like skin textures," Letteri explains. To animate the simulated performance, the VFX vet says "we used a lot of Paul's footage as reference, because as close as the brothers were in style and mannerisms, they just weren't Paul when Paul played his character. We really tried to limit our interpretation of the character to things that we had seen Paul do as the character. We found performances that matched the situation that we needed to put him in, and we used that to guide us."

The final element that had to be added was dialogue. "Most of the CG shots had some kind of dialogue," Letteri says. "The sound editors had to craft the vocal performance out of [existing] dialog from Paul, and we had to animate to that."

With any CG human, the key challenge is sidestepping a perceptual zone known as the "uncanny valley"-; when a virtual character is close to looking believably human, but still isn't quite right, the results can look creepy. Letteri says avoiding that was all in the details: "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 something fake about the performance. Other details involved placing the stubble on his beard correctly -; the length and placement of every individual hair -; because when that was off, it didn't feel like Paul."

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Hollywood has used various VFX techniques in similar situations before -; in Gladiator, when Oliver Reed suffered a fatal heart attack during filming, and on HBO's The Sopranos, to complete scenes of the late Nancy Marchand, who played Tony Soprano's mother. But the work on Furious 7, which convincingly returned Walker to the screen, shows just how sophisticated Hollywood can get with enough time, money, and, critically, talented VFX artists.

Sums up Letteri: "There really wasn't room to let anything slip. It was too important to complete the story in respect to Paul's memory -; to make sure that when you watched it, you didn't think about any of the work that we did. If you were a fan, you were watching Paul's performance and saying goodbye."

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