VFX Firsts: What was the first digital face replacement in a film?

Just one of the many breakthroughs on this particular movie…

Today, with digital visual effects, we can very easily replace a stunt actor’s face with the principal actor, ‘change’ the facial performance if we want to, and even replace the actor altogether.

These present-day abilities stemmed from the rise and rise of digital techniques pioneered in the early 90s, when ‘face replacement’ as a VFX concept was born. To discuss the first face replacement in a film, befores & afters’ Ian Failes is joined by Lola VFX visual effects supervisor Trent Claus on this week’s VFX Firsts podcast.

You can listen at Apple Podcasts or Spotify, or directly below. Heads up: there’s a bunch of spoilers below in case you want to listen to the podcast first.

This week’s hosts: Lola VFX’s Trent Claus and b&a’s Ian Failes.

1. A shot that perhaps *could have been* the first face replacement shot

The Terminator 2: Judgment Day (1991) scene of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Terminator character jumping into the LA River canal on his motorcycle was an elaborate wire rig stunt performed by a stunt performer. In the shot in the original version of the film, the stuntie’s face can certainly be seen, although the wires had been digital erased by PDI. PDI’s visual effects supervisor on that shot told befores & afters:

“On the bike jump – we didn’t discuss face replacements. We were easily a few years away from having the tools. Thad Beier’s tracking system wouldn’t happen until the late 90’s and it would have been pretty tough for us without that. We did do a flop on the truck smashing through the bridge shot including the driver. The main tech gag on that was in flopping the Plummer street sign.”

In a re-released version of Terminator 2, which you can find on Blu-Ray, the face appears to have now been replaced with Schwarzenegger’s.

2. The Jurassic Park (1993) stunt

Here, the characters are in the crawlspace above the ceiling, but a panel gives way, causing Lex (Ariana Richards) to slip through and a raptor is able to jump up and bite at her until she is pulled back to safety. Although the actual fall was done by a stuntwoman, the Richards was added into the shot via digital face replacement by ILM. It involved shooting the actress separately by filming some scenes of her putting her head up and down, rotoscoping that digitally and then matting Richard’s face over the stuntwoman’s face. You can see some of the behind the scenes in this video, below.

3. Face replacement resources

The Running Man (1987) sequence (not true face replacement, but a sign of things to come, perhaps)

Cinefex 55Jurassic Park

Weta Digital’s face replacements over the years

fxguide story on Canny AI