How Army of the Dead Used VFX To Recast A Main Character

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Visual effects routinely help filmmakers accomplish what once seemed impossible, whether it’s de-aging actors or digitally creating characters that seem all-too-real on the screen. In most cases, the movie magic created with visual effects is part of a production process that’s planned from the start, but in Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead, visual effects were put to use to solve a problem that occurred more than a year after cameras finished rolling on the film.

Released in theaters and on Netflix in May, Army of the Dead follows a team of mercenaries recruited to recover $200 million from a casino vault in Las Vegas. The catch? The entire city of Las Vegas is currently walled-off and filled with flesh-hungry zombies, and the government is planning to drop a bomb on it in a matter of days.

Filming on Army of the Dead ended in mid-2019, but a year later, original cast member Chris D’Elia became the subject of serious sexual misconduct allegations, putting the film’s still-uncertain release date (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) in question. No stranger to the revisionist power of visual effects (case in point: Zack Snyder’s Justice League), Snyder took the bold step of recasting D’Elia’s character more than a year after filming had wrapped, and used a blend of digital effects and extensive solo reshoots to replace D’Elia with actress and comedian Tig Notaro.

Snyder’s gamble paid off, and Army of the Dead was both a theatrical and streaming success, with the performances of both Notaro and star Dave Bautista earning critical praise. For the vast majority of audiences, the late-stage replacement of Notaro went entirely unnoticed, with Snyder, visual effects supervisor Marcus Taormina, and visual effects studio Framestore collectively raising the bar for what VFX is capable of achieving.

“We were pretty much done with the movie [when the allegations against D’Elia went public],” Taormina told Digital Trends. “We were finishing our last handful of visual effects shots [and] we had a cut of the film that had been viewed by friends and family and other people along the way that everyone was really happy with.”

The decision to remove D’Elia from the film came swiftly, but exactly how they’d accomplish it was less certain. After some deliberation that ultimately led to the decision to recast the D’Elia’s character throughout the film, Snyder reportedly sent Notaro the most recent cut of the film — complete with D’Elia’s performance — to offer her the rare opportunity to play a key, on-screen role in a film that had already been completed.

“One of the first things we did is, we pulled through the movie and just took a look at what this would mean,” recalled Taormina. “We had a good movie, so we didn’t want to take anything away from it. … So we decided we weren’t going to remove any scenes. We weren’t going to cut anything because it was too complicated. So at that point, it was now about making the movie better.”

That process began with the identification of each and every shot D’Elia appeared in throughout the film, along with detailed notes about everything seen on the screen. The angle and origin of the lighting in the shot, his distance from any other cast members, the timing of any dialog in the scene, and the specifications of the lenses used to film the scene all went into a catalog of shots they’d need to recreate with Notaro.

Framestore, the studio that provided the bulk of the film’s visual effects, brought in an additional visual effects supervisor, Joao Sita, whose sole focus was on the digital substitution of Notaro for D’Elia, based on two weeks of footage featuring Notaro acting in front of a digitally replaceable green screen alongside stand-ins for the rest of the film’s cast.

“[Taormina] knew the shots that needed to be replaced [and] matched the lighting in the green-screen shots to the original shots in the principal photography, which was a big part of the work — because if the lighting didn’t match she would feel out of place,” said Sita.

Complicating matters further was Snyder’s unique visual approach to the film, which made use of specialized digital cameras that allowed him — in his roles as both director and cinematographer — to use a type of older lens that gave the film a softer, dream-like visual aesthetic. Not only did Snyder need to precisely reshoot D’Elia’s scenes with Notaro, he — along with Taormina and the Framestore team — needed to replicate the effect of the “dream lens” on Notaro’s scenes.

“The way that Zack shot it was a blessing and a curse while we were shooting it, and then a blessing and a curse again when replacing an actor,” laughed Taormina.

It wasn’t as simple as reshooting all of D’Elia’s scenes with Notaro using the dream lenses, as it would be difficult to precisely replicate the shifts in focus and depth of field that naturally accompany camera movement, which are amplified when using special lenses. So in order to maintain Snyder’s dream-like visual aesthetic, Taormina eventually determined that the best way to ensure a smooth replacement was to film Notaro’s scenes with a sharper, more traditional lens, and when possible, shoot the same scene again with the dream lens. They could then use visual effects to find the proper balance between the two for each scene.

“I had confidence that, because we had so much information and because we had learned these lenses throughout our initial photography and through the initial post-production, we could replicate that look,” Taormina recalled.

That confidence — along with plenty of preparation — ended up paying off, as Taormina found that replicating the shots moved along much quicker than he expected, thanks to all of the early attention they paid to both the schedule of shots and ensuring every element they could account for was considered. His original plan for using both the traditional lens and dream lens only when absolutely necessary was eventually replaced by a two-part pass on almost every shot, thanks to the efficiency of the team and Notaro’s performance.

“It was only five or six times that I was going to ask for both passes, but because we had laid everything out so smoothly, and we had a shooting board and shooting order, and just about all the same crew from the original photography, it kind of became muscle memory for a lot of us,” he said. “By the second day, every single setup was being shot with the sharp lenses, and then we’d flop the cameras and go straight to the dream lenses. It was a best-case scenario [and] we needed those small wins to help us in this shoot.”

As smoothly as the reshoots went, however, the process wasn’t without plenty of elements that needed to be considered, prepared for, and enacted in ways that made for a truly unique shooting process.

“We would have to account for where the sun is going to be at all times, and always think ahead a few hours, too,” explained Taormina. “We were shooting [with Notaro] in September, so the sun was lower [than it was during the original shoot in June]. We’d have to get Tig’s stand-in in place, line up the shot, then take the entire setup and shift it around so the light would be where we needed it to be when we’re ready to shoot.”

Scenes with dialog and movement in them added an extra layer of complexity to the reshoots, as they required Notaro’s performance to match not only D’Elia’s physical presence in the film but his active role in many scenes.

In one memorable scene from Army of the Dead, Notaro’s character, Marianne Peters, converses with Bautista’s character, Scott Ward, about her status as the second most important member of their team (after the safecracker), since she’s the pilot tasked with eventually getting them all out of the city. The scene required Notaro to engage in a funny conversation with Bautista — one that was originally filmed with D’Elia, who not only has different speech patterns than Notaro but is also quite a bit taller.

Watching the scene play out in the film, the fact that Bautista and Notaro were never on the same set together seems impossible, given how seamless (and well-timed) the shot appears.

“That scene was one of a handful that kept me up late at night,” laughed Taormina. “It has some complicated camera moves, and there’s an eyeline element that needs to be established there, too.”

“In the [original] scene, there was a very bright backlight, so we put some silk up and filmed her against that while blasting light through it. That gave it the right amount of light spilling over her shoulders,” he explained. “For the dialog, the timing was so important. We couldn’t let Tig go off the rails too much, because there were windows of time in the original scene that we had to work within. She had to speed up her dialog or slow it down to fit it in.”

In order to establish the proper line of sight for Notaro to create the illusion that she was speaking to Bautista, a stand-in of the same height as Bautista would run through the scene with her while wearing a green suit that could be erased from the shot. Notaro and the stand-in would have to mirror the timing of the original scene in order to make it possible for the visual effects team to seamlessly insert her into the film.

“[Notaro] is a great actress, so she would get the dialog right, but it was all about tweaking the timing of it,” said Taormina. “We’d have to make her tweak her movement a bit, too, because there were certain subtle movements and position that had to match [Bautista]. … That particular scene was one that I’m just so proud of because it seems so flawless for how complicated it was.”

And even after all of the reshoots were completed and Notaro had given Snyder and Taormina all the footage they wanted, the task of integrating her into the film still required plenty of work from Sita and the Framestore team. Seemingly minor elements like shadows, wind, footprints, and the dust that erupts from the dry Las Vegas ground with every step needed to get a similar level of attention from visual effects artists.

“Shadows would have to be distorted, and when [Notaro] was walking over dirt, we would have to add footsteps on the ground — things like that,” recalled Sita. “We had to add dust hiccups and work through all the fine details. Sometimes we had to get the eyeline to work a little better by cheating her position in space, and sometimes there was a lot of editing to sell the effect that she’s there all the time in the film, even when she’s in a crowd.”

“We could cheat it a little, but never so much that we lose what they captured,” he added.

In the end, the general lack of awareness among audiences that any of this process even occurred is a testament to the efforts of everyone involved in the reshoots, visual effects, and final post-production stage of Army of the Dead.

“I did my job properly if it was seamless enough that you questioned whether any of this actually happened and you go back and watch it again,” said Taormina.

Zack Snyder’s Army of the Dead is available to watch now on Netflix.

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