One of the great surprises of “Blade Runner 2049” was a stunning CG recreation of the Rachael replicant played by Sean Young in the original movie. The two-minute sequence brings an emotionally stirring reunion with Harrison Ford’s Deckard that required technical virtuosity and subtle performance. This major step in digital human animation should be rewarded with a VFX Oscar nomination.
Body double Loren Peta played the young Rachael (in costume, makeup, and with dotted face) and performed on set with Ford and Jared Leto (as replicant manufacturer Wallace). She was directed by Denis Villeneuve, with Young on set as well for reference. The goal was to merge the two into a perfect replica.
Facial Capture on a Secret Saturday
“Denis really liked Loren’s performance when it was cut together, but part of our plan was to do a facial capture of Loren and Sean,” said Oscar-winning production visual effects supervisor John Nelson (“Gladiator”). “So on a secret Saturday [in Budapest] we brought in Sean and Loren using the DI4D PRO Facial Capture System, saying their lines.”
Oscar-winning MPC (“The Jungle Book”) was tasked with animating the 20-year-old Rachael. After getting the present-day scan of Young’s head, that reference was used to model an anatomically correct 3D skull. The digital sculpt provided a clear idea of the proportions of her head, including the bridge of the nose, cheekbones, and jaw line.
“We captured both actresses doing the scene in a controlled facial capture environment, but, in the end, because we wanted to tell this story with subtle changes, we ended up hand-animating the whole thing,” said MPC visual effects supervisor Richard Clegg.
The skull was then lined up with production stills and scenes from the original “Blade Runner” for reference to create an identical match. Hair, eyebrows, eyelashes, and color textures were worked in along with important facial points and skin textures, right down to flyaway hair and eyeball jiggle.
Capturing the Emotional Arc
Then the hard work really began. “About four weeks before the end of production, they decided to put in footage of Rachael from the original ‘Blade Runner,’ which set the bar really high,” said Nelson. “What we really did was drill in all of Sean’s mannerisms from the first movie and were all over them. For instance, when Sean has a wry smile and wiggles her head a bit.”
However, Villeneuve wanted a three-beat character arc for the new replicant when she encounters Deckard. First, she displays confidence and then longing before feeling rejected when realizing that she doesn’t measure up.
But because the animated performance wasn’t measuring up against Roger Deakins’ beautiful cinematography, the VFX team performed a test to help fill in the gaps. “We needed to get it right and the only way to do that was to put it next to the real thing,” said Clegg. “We took three shots from the original movie that had minimal facial performance, eye blinks, or a little bit of an eyebrow raise. We tracked those and created digital versions.”
Added Nelson: “In each shot, we replaced the original Rachael and it was hard for Denis and the producers to identify the CG model. We all agreed that the model fit, but we still needed to get the emotions right.”
So they kept going back to Young’s original performance and mimicked it until the animation team made it happen and puppeteered it. “The giant ray of light on the ceiling that was constantly moving was difficult to capture, said Clegg. “But I think it helped as well because as the light moved and traveled across her face, you really get a sense of the emotion that is happening.”