A deep dive into the meticulous visual effects work behind replacing Chris D’Elia with Notaro on Zack Synder’s film.
You may have heard that Tig Notaro replaced Chris D’Elia in Zack Synder’s Army of the Dead, after the latter actor faced sexual misconduct allegations and after D’Elia’s scenes had pretty much all been filmed.
Amazingly, Notaro acted in these scenes that her now fellow actors had already performed, but without them, ie. by herself, in a greenscreen studio or on exteriors. She was then inserted into the existing ‘plates’ by the film’s visual effects team, which had to either paint out the previous actor, re-work scenes to now include the foreground elements of Notaro, or even use a digi-double.
So, how did they do it? Well, befores & afters spoke to Army of the Dead visual effects supervisor Marcus Taormina to find out exactly how the actor replacement was achieved.
— Vulture (@vulture) May 11, 2021
b&a: Where did you start with all this actor replacement work?
Marcus Taormina: We were just about done with the film. I’d say there were 50 to 20 shots left in the movie for us to complete, and we were already doing color timing, when we got the phone call. The conversation was, ‘We have an issue. We want to replace this actor. We don’t know who it’s going to be yet, but let’s start the conversation.’
Kudos to Zack and the filmmaking team because we got right on top of it. We knew the movie worked really well, so we wanted to keep as much of it intact as possible. Some other movies might just lift entire scenes and make it easy, but we knew the movie worked and we wanted to keep it as good or make it better, and that was what we always set out to do.
We started talking about who Zack was thinking for casting, and along the way Tig came up. So the first thing I was doing was Googling the body type difference between Chris and Tig, which was pretty significant, but we knew that might be the case. Then once we knew it was Tig for sure, the next phase of this was seeing how many shots that we would have to replace. I asked Zack and the filmmaking team to start work on some of the more complex paint-outs to give us as much time as we could have to finesse those. And they saw the writing on the wall, gave us the approval, and we started working on those.
b&a: So, how did you actually work out what would need to be shot with Tig and how else to put her in the movie?
Marcus Taormina: Well, then it was about how many shots there were, and the complexities for each shot, and then breaking that down into subcategories of lighting, subcategories of interior and exterior, and then getting into the nuances of the lenses that were used, getting all the camera data throughout.
One of the things I asked our amazing editorial to do was, well, we knew what the cut is, but could they pull all of the alternate takes from each piece of the cut, if they’re available, because we may be able to find pieces of those backgrounds to use for the plate reconstruction, the paint-outs of Chris.
Drilling down on the shots themselves was really Zack and me sitting and going through line by line and saying ‘Okay, we can do this one with an element, this one’s a more complex camera move, we’re never going to get that same camera move on the day, so we should just do a digital-double…’
What we learned as we were plotting these things is that, for almost every scene, we had some decent anchor point to reference so we could line up the camera almost to a T, exactly, for I’d say 60% of the shots. We then looked at each scene and said, ‘Okay, well what do each of these scenes have in common?’ And for the warehouse scene, for instance, there was the foam core model of the hotel, and we knew that we could line that up against our footage, and then get a really close match on our Tig portion.
The other more complex issue that we were dealing with was the fact that Zack shot it with a very shallow depth of field, with these very vintage lenses. Which, look fantastic! It’s so beautiful. But, I would tell him it’s a blessing and curse, because to nail that final look in our digital shots took a very long time, and amazing talented artists all around us, specifically in our Montreal office at Framestore, we took a lot of time to finesse and match the look one to one.
What I suggested to Zack was that we shoot these new scenes with a wider depth of field, on sharper lenses, which I said would give more certainty in terms of being able to match the look. By then we had learned these lenses, we understood the optics, we understood their look. There were doubts, so what I did was I asked him to go shoot one out, and then I’d show him what we could make it look like.
b&a: How did you then approach the actual shoot with Tig?
Marcus Taormina: It was an interior and exterior. I pushed to make sure we shot exteriors as exteriors, because of that high keylight. And then we did a greenscreen stage for interiors. We’d have little anchor points for us, so the foam core model was one. When we first come into Vegas, that burnt out car was another anchor point, so we’d line up Tig, we’d tell her the action, we’d show her the car, we’d say, ‘This is where you’re going to land,’ and then we’d have her do a rehearsal take, and we would be live mixing through QTAKE, and we’d also be compositing.
I knew I wanted to shoot everything a bit wider, too, so we’d shoot one almost the same focal length as we did on the day, and once they got it I’d ask them to go wider because there was always a point where the camera was drifting or bobbing a little bit, and I wanted to make sure that we had that extra padding of Tig to utilize. It was also to let us track both the background and the foreground piece together—I wanted to have extra room for that.
Another part of the prep was getting all of the footage ahead of time, and getting it into QTAKE. We had boards every day that were like, ‘This is the name of the visual effects shot that we’re shooting.’ And everyone would look at the light, and we’d figure out ‘Okay, we have to rotate here to get that light, but in two hours when we shoot, the light’s going to be over there, so let’s anticipate that and rotate it around, do our rehearsals as the light’s changing, and then when it hits the right point, run the takes.’
When we all got together again for this little two week shoot, having the footage and remembering how we shot it on the day was huge. There’s a 360 shot, for instance, and I’d say, ‘Okay Darin [key grip], remember, this is where we were on a 360 camera, or we were on a 360 track around Chris, and do you remember that move?’ And he’s like, ‘Yeah, of course. I know what head we were on.’ We’d get into it, and we’d get that routine, and then it was like muscle memory. Having all of the same or very similar crew was an amazing piece of this. We just kind of went right through and had the same fluidity that we did on set.
There was one scene that kept me up, and I’m sure it kept Zack up too, because it was a very tricky thing, it was a gamble
We also did some techvis beforehand. On the majority of the shots, we already had the 3D camera solved. So we would get that, and then we would do our quick math on set if they were overcranked or under cranked, or if they were shot at 24, we would align that to our techvis so we knew where the camera was floating, and then we would do our best to mimic that move. Again, that got us closer to the original camera moves than we would’ve just done by eyeballing it.
As we were shooting this, we had our VTR guy do mixes on stage to give us really quick live comps to verify the line-ups, and then I would take that and rush that through editorial. They were fantastic because they would push those dailies through as fast as they could, and what would happen at lunch is I would come through, they would have done a mock-up of what we shot the day before, and then I would take that and do a quick comp with some artists to verify that we were in a good shape, and then we’d say, ‘Okay, that shot’s done. We got that.’ That was all on the crisp lenses.
In the beginning I only had a handful of setups that I’d told Zack I’d like to shoot with both lenses. I’d say, ‘We’ll get it on this nice crisp lens, and then we’ll do the same exact shot but on our dream lenses so we can have all the same lighting, we can see how the quality is, how the lens resolves on our dream lenses, so we have a match to look at in the same exact light.’ And that was only supposed to be with 5% of the setups, but because of our meticulous planning and having everything, and having a really good sense going in, I did almost every single set-up on both lenses, just to make sure we had a verified look for that so we could match to it. Which was really great, because it gave us almost a one-to-one look to then take and match into the footage that we’d previously shot, both in Albuquerque and Atlantic City.
b&a: You mentioned there was a digi-double of Tig—how was that used in these replacement shots?
Marcus Taormina: There were a handful of digi-double Tigs, and the reason behind the digi-double was that I knew there were camera moves in our edit that were sweeping shots that we would never be able to replicate, and we would’ve spent hours and hours trying to get an element for. What we would do was, we’d build out the digital Tig for that as high-resolution as possible. We just had Tig in her outfit basically do a bunch of walk cycles where we knew what the terrain was where she was going to be walking. We captured her at a bunch of different angles that would loosely match the camera angle, into which we were placing her digi-double, so our animators had a good representation of how she was walking and what the clothing was doing at the moment. We also took a bunch of lighting reference there too so we could verify that our digi-double was accurate to the movement.
b&a: How did you do those helicopter scenes, and the crash, which Tig is in?
Marcus Taormina: For the wides where we’re outside the helicopter, say in helicopter to helicopter coverage, most of that is digital. When we’re up close with Tig, we shot her in the helicopter buck on greenscreen. Then there were a handful of pieces where there was very close interaction in the helicopter. What we decided to do there is put a double in there, and actually just skim over the shoulder in a lot of these of the double who was the same size as Dave Bautista, and then just slot that into that scene that we already had. So when you cut to the singles on Dave, it just kind of makes sense. And the same for when Zeus comes out on the rooftop and when they’re about the dive over the Olympus.
There’s a couple other pieces in there where, on one of the very last days when we were out of time, there was this super-complicated 2D shot where Tig’s character is actually dead in the helicopter. There’s a bunch of big bumps in the camera as it booms up, and so we basically had to reverse engineer that, and we had to place Tig comfortably where she could be stationary, and we had to just keep booming the move, but it had to be at a half-speed because the perspective changes on her. So what we ended up doing was, we could never get the number one to the number two to work, but on the day I saw that if we took from the number two to the number one as the resetting, which was smoother, if we just reverse printed that it would probably be a better match to put within the camera move that was already shot.
There’s a couple pieces in there, too, on that same setup, where I just put locked-off static cameras, and we just grabbed little bits and pieces of Tig to then place within the helicopter in that third act moment.
b&a: What were some of the most complex actor replacement shots with Tig?
Marcus Taormina: There were a handful of pieces that were really tricky with interaction between characters, mainly when we’re in Lilly’s container when she bumps into Dieter and she’s like, ‘Get your gun out.’ We would align Tig’s assistant and have her interact with him, which really sold it. And then, obviously, with his eye line as well, we would find the marks for Dave Bautista’s character and have almost a one-to-one so her eyes would drift to Dave at the right time.
Another example is where Tig’s character was walking into the loading dock from the exterior. That was always tagged to be a digi-double, but that actually became an element. We just blended some digital concrete over her. So when she starts to slip in the element, in the comp, she passes behind a digital piece of concrete, so you can never see her foot interact with the ground plane.
There was one scene that kept me up, and I’m sure it kept Zack up too, because it was a very tricky thing, it was a gamble. I’m so proud of it, and I’m in awe as I still see it, is when she actually walks into the loading dock. That was on greenscreen. Tig’s assistant, Patrick, was there, but that’s actually being lit behind them because what happens is they’re in the interior but the exterior is blown out with super bright light. So she’s backlit. The camera move there is a bit long dolly back with a lot of bumps, and that was one that we knew would be really tricky to film. I think we did maybe 14 takes of that, and I think at least two or three of those takes worked. It’s such a proud moment where you’re like, ‘Holy shit, we pulled that off.’ That was one of the many road bumps to overcome on the journey.