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Digital Resurrections

2/15/2012 2:30 AM Eastern

Two days after Rob Harvey accepted the visual effects Oscar for Gladiator, he was back in London, explaining how the effects team at Mill Film brought a man back to life. Harvey and co-winners John Nelson, Neil Courbould, and Tim Burke digitally finished scenes involving the late Oliver Reed after the actor suddenly passed away during the making of Gladiator.

Harvey emphasized that “digitally finishing performances for deceased actors poses a huge responsibility” for the visual effects community.

“Oliver's death was a big shock, and [director] Ridley Scott made the call that his character had to finish his performance somehow,” says Harvey. “There was no talk of doing a CG Oliver Reed and no talk of having him disappear from the story. Instead, Ridley decided to go back to a concept from an earlier draft of the script, where Oliver's character dies just before the end of the film, and he asked us to make it work for his final scene. This was a great actor in an important movie, and we had to make it look seamless.”

Harvey's team put Reed's character, Proximo, into his final scene via vigorous Inferno mixing-and-matching of different shots of a body double with pieces of Reed's face and body from earlier scenes and outtakes. Mill artists digitally trimmed Reed's beard, combined skin textures from the stand-in with Reed's face, adjusted light and shadows, performed hours of warping and tracking, and utilized other techniques to sell the effect.

Gladiator is not the only recent example of such work, and in some cases, critics have taken shots at filmmakers, accusing them of taking liberties with the images of renowned actors. Earlier this year, for instance, HBO backed away from promoting the fact that artists at Rhinoceros Visual Effects, New York, performed digital CPR on the character played by the late actress, Nancy Marchand, for the season-opening episode of The Sopranos.

After the story was covered on The Today Show and in a handful of print and Web publications, HBO decided to downplay the fact that the Sopranos episode included digital techniques that had never before been accomplished for television. In particular, Rhinoceros used Sony's new HD Vialta telecine to transfer and color-balance earlier film clips featuring Marchand. This procedure, part of a complicated film restoration process, was groundbreaking for television, according to Nick Schlumpf, visual effects project leader for Rhinoceros. “Inferno limit-pushing,” cloning, and compositing then completed the job.

Though digital resurrection has proved successful for both film and television, Harvey hopes producers will use it sparingly. Even with current and future technology enhancements, he says, it will “always be nearly impossible to replace the real thing.”

“Obviously, you don't expect anyone to die while filming, but it happens,” says Harvey. “But to Cyberscan actors when you hire them and then think you can recreate them CG and seamlessly mix them with live-action shots is silly. On Gladiator, we could patch up and finish little sections, but we could never animate a true Oliver Reed or Richard Harris performance. All we did was combine traditional in-camera and post methods to achieve a save in a fairly seamless manner.”