A body double, CGI skull, and secret filming sessions all helped ‘Blade Runner 2049’ earn a VFX Oscar nomination

A computer-generated Rachael appears in

A computer-generated Rachael appears in “Blade Runner: 2049.”
Warner Bros.

  • John Nelson, the Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor on “Blade Runner 2049,” walks through how he made a CGI version of the franchise’s memorable Rachael character for the movie.
  • The process took a year of trial and error, which was all done under secret shooting sessions and a code name.
  • Sean Young, who played the character in the original movie, was also brought on to supervise.

With a total of 1,200 visual effects shots in “Blade Runner 2049” – that comes out to 1:45 of the movie’s total running time of 2:43 – Oscar-winning VFX supervisor John Nelson and his team logged in major hours to go a step beyond the 1982 original movie’s legendary sci-fi look.

But there was a particular scene in the movie that Nelson and director Denis Villeneuve paid special attention to – and it has led to Oscar nominations for the movie.

Toward the end of the movie when Deckard (Harrison Ford) meets Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), he is offered something very near and dear to him in exchange for information on where Wallace can find the only known child replicant. From the shadows appears Rachael, played by actress Sean Young, the beautiful replicant who is also Deckard’s love interest in the original movie. For the “2049” scene, Rachael looks like she hasn’t aged a day from when we saw her in the original movie, and that’s because Nelson and his team pulled off a flawless CGI version of Young to bring back the character for the sequel.

This is just the latest example of recent major blockbuster movies using computer graphics to de-age an actor. We’ve seen it with Kurt Russell in “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” Johnny Depp in “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales,” Robert Downey Jr. in “Captain America: Civil War,” and Michael Douglas in “Ant-Man.” That’s not even counting “Rogue One,” in which a younger version of deceased actress Carrie Fisher appears in her Princess Leia role and Peter Cushing, who had been dead for 22 years at the time of the movie’s release, shows up in CGI form reprising his Governor Tarkin role from “Star Wars: A New Hope.”

Nelson and Villeneuve were aware of most of these past VFX landmarks, but felt they could go a step beyond those. Nelson was tasked to make the best CGI human ever put on screen yet.

“I looked at all the digital human work and for the most part I could see where it all falls down,” Nelson told Business Insider. “We tried to build on the shoulders of everything that had been done before us.”

What Nelson found was that it’s not enough to use motion capture to create the face you want to portray. There are small details to include that can’t be ignored to pull off the task. But it took him a year of trial and error to realize that.

Here’s how CGI Rachael was achieved:

Creating the digital skull

Warner Bros.

Rachael was given the code name “Rita” during filming, and the scene was done often with a very small crew to ensure that what was being done would not get out to the public.

Nelson and his team started by creating a digital skull of the Rachael character. They scanned Young’s head and then were able to find a life cast of her that was done a few years after the original “Blade Runner.” By combining both they created a CGI skull of her. Nelson and his team than began de-aging the CGI head using footage from the original “Blade Runner” as a guide.

Shooting the scene with a body double and Sean Young’s guidance

Actress Loren Peta.
Warner Bros.

While all of that was going on, back on set Villeneuve shot the “Rita” scene with Ford and Leto. Actress Loren Peta was brought on as the Rachael body double. With Nelson and Young also on hand, the scene was done with dots all over Peta’s face, which would be needed when the footage went through the motion-capture phase. Peta’s face would be erased, and CGI Sean Young would be inserted.

“Sean would be sitting with Denis and they’d be talking about Loren’s performance as Rachael,” Nelson said. “She would advise him on the movements and the looks of Rachael. ‘I would have done it this way or that way,’ she would tell Denis.”

Back to the drawing board

Sean Young in “Blade Runner” (1982)
Warner Bros.

At this point Nelson took the footage shot and inserted what they had done with CGI Rachael, and showed what they had to Villeneuve and the producers. But no one was that impressed.

“They were like, ‘Well, it really looks like a woman that looks a lot like Sean Young, but it doesn’t look like Sean Young,'” Nelson recalled. “So I went back to the drawing board.”

Nelson went even deeper, and that’s where he found pay dirt.

“What I found is it’s her imperfections that make her beautiful,” he said. “Her eyes are not symmetrical, her eyes actually stick out of her head a little more than most people. We studied how makeup was done when ‘Blade Runner’ was made. In fact, we went to every woman on the crew and asked about how makeup was done in the 1980s. We learned about the right shade of lip stick. Just subtle things from the first movie that we could put into our Rachael.”

Nelson went back to Denis and the producers with four scenes from the original “Blade Runner” and inserted CGI Rachael into a single shot in each scene. But he didn’t tell them what he did.

“The producers and Denis were like, ‘John, this is great but why are we looking at the first movie?’ and I told them what I did and they couldn’t tell, they actually got upset,” Nelson said. “They were like, ‘Why didn’t you tell us?’ And I was like, ‘Isn’t that the point? It’s supposed to be like the real thing.'”

Making CGI Rachael act

Warner Bros.

With CGI Rachael now perfect, Nelson had to make her a believable actress. Following the shoot with Ford and Leto, Nelson said Villeneuve then did a “super secret Saturday session” with just Young and Peta where both wore motion-capture rigs and did the scene. The goal was to get the character to show confidence, longing, and rejection during her time on screen.

“At first we had our digital double come on screen becoming immediately emotional, it didn’t look like Rachael,” Nelson said.

Once again going back to the original “Blade Runner,” Nelson studied how Young played her, specifically Deckard and Rachael’s first meeting. In it, Rachael is extremely confident. So Nelson changed course for the “2049” Rachael scene.

“I brought her out confident,” Nelson said. “Then Denis said when she gets to Deckard it’s like two people who haven’t seen each other in 20 years and when they see each other they can’t help themselves.”

In the final version of the “2049” Rachael scene, Rachael walks out of the shadows confident, then has a look of longing when she gets close to Deckard, then has a face of rejection when he says to Wallace that the real Rachael’s eyes were green.

“We took little subtle nuances from the original movie with our facial motion capture and put them into the performance,” Nelson said. “Down to her eyes tearing up and strands of her hair misplaced.”

Nelson said Villeneuve was very nervous about the Rachael scene and if they would be able to pull it off. He admitted to Nelson that he didn’t like a lot of the CGI human footage he’d seen in movies. But Nelson knew he had met his director’s high standard when Villeneuve gave him four words.

“For me, the satisfaction came when he said with his rich Montreal accent, ‘I deeply love it,'” Nelson said. “When he really loved something he would say, ‘I deeply love it,’ that’s when I knew we were there.”

Why CGI actors will never replace humans

Warner Bros.

Since the movie came out Nelson has found a lot of admiration from his peers in the VFX community.

“A good friend of mine who worked on one of the movies where they had a digital double came up to me recently and said, ‘You did it man, it’s the best yet.’ And my response was, ‘We looked at your work really closely, we just built on top of it.'”

But Nelson doesn’t see the creation of CGI versions of actors becoming widespread in Hollywood. He admits it’s still very difficult to pull off (CGI Sean Young is on screen for about a minute and it took a year to pull off). However, it’s vital to fill in gaps. The example Nelson likes to use is when he had to digitally create actor Oliver Reed when he died in the middle of production on 2000’s “Gladiator” (the work would earn him an Oscar). It was possible, though, because – like CGI Rachael – there was a living actor to reference.

“It has to start with the actor,” Nelson said. “The real person is the source material. It’s simpler to hire a talented actor and let them act. The magic comes from them as opposed to an animator.”