January 24, 2018

Discover How John Nelson & His VFX Team Brought Rachael Back to Life in 'Blade Runner 2049'

Blade Runner 2049 Rachael returns
The Academy Award-winning VFX supervisor pushed the boundaries of motion capture to create the astonishing reveal. And earn another Oscar nomination.

First, a late spoiler alert: Rachael returns in Blade Runner 2049. Honestly, you've had over three months to see the movie, so get over it. Oh, and Han Solo's dead, too. Moving on...

Recreating deceased or younger versions of actors in movies with CGI over the years hasn't typically yielded the best results (Rogue One, anyone? And that was one of the best attempts to date). Sure, the characters look younger, but they don't really look human. They look, well, computer-generated. For an emotionally charged scene toward the end of Blade Runner 2049, the filmmakers needed a familiar face to appear from the first film. To see Deckard's reaction as he lays eyes on Rachael again, and for the audience to believe the moment, the character had to look real—more human than human.

Blade Runner 2049's VFX supervisor John Nelson recognized the potential pitfalls. In a recent interview with Business Insider, Nelson noted, "I looked at all the digital human work and for the most part I could see where it all falls down. We tried to build on the shoulders of everything that had been done before us."

Nelson and his team spent a year experimenting to bring Rachael back to life for the sequel. Working in complete secrecy, they scanned actress Sean Young's head and merged that data with a head cast of the actress from around the time of the original film to create a digital skull for Rachael. The team used footage from the original Blade Runner to de-age the skull.

Blade Runner 2049 Rachael digital skull
Creating the digital skull for Rachael in 'Blade Runner 2049'.Credit: Warner Bros.

After creating the initial VFX shots, Nelson and his team showed them to director Denis Villeneuve and the producers. Villeneuve and the others were not convinced. "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,'" explained Nelson. To sell the illusion, Nelson realized that they needed to include Sean Young's imperfections to make Rachael look real. They studied the original footage extremely carefully and researched make-up techniques used in the original film.

Once Nelson believed they had cracked it, he showed Villeneuve and the producers another test, but not with VFX for the new film. Instead, Nelson showed them scenes of Rachael from the original Blade Runner. Villeneuve and the others were confused—why were they watching clips from the original film? Nelson then revealed that his team had replaced one shot in each clip with the new digital version of Rachael, but no one could tell which shots were original and which were the digital replacement. "I told them what I did and they couldn’t tell, they actually got upset. 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,'" Nelson recalled.

On the set, both Sean Young and her double actress Loren Peta performed the scene with motion capture rigs. Combining the performances with the digital skull and CGI face of Rachael, Nelson worked with Villeneuve to shape the emotions conveyed by the digital double. Young also counseled Villeneuve on set as she watched Peta's performance to let the director know how Young portrayed the character.

Blade Runner 2049 Rachael body double Loren Peta
Rachael body double Loren Peta performing with motion capture dots in 'Blade Runner 2049'.Credit: Warner Bros.

Despite Villeneuve's anxiety about getting Rachael just right for the sequel, Nelson and his team worked tirelessly until they achieved what seemed impossible: a living, breathing, emoting version of Rachael on screen, complete with all of her imperfections. Nelson knew they had succeeded when Villeneuve finally uttered his common phrase of approval: "I deeply love it."

Be sure to check out the complete article on Business Insider to hear more about the VFX from Nelson himself. To see more of Nelson and his VFX team's work to recreate Rachael, check out this video compilation of the effects shots below.

Your Comment

13 Comments

Wow, thanks for the massive fucking spoiler. Not everyone gets to see movies the second they come out. Do the right thing and change the headline..

January 24, 2018 at 6:47PM, Edited January 24, 6:47PM

1
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Don't worry about it, it spoils nothing. Seriously. Also, go see the movie, we're all itching to post spoilers and waiting just for you for like 4 months already.

January 24, 2018 at 7:01PM

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Gleb Volkov
Director of Photography
372

Out on digital since December so no excuses mate

January 24, 2018 at 7:55PM, Edited January 24, 7:55PM

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Matt Nunn
Amateur
562

Yeah try a busy schedule and not being able to watch movies on set. Not that it matters. You should be able to watch something whenever the hell you want (past a whopping one month window), without risk of it being ruined by a headline spoiler. They could just as easily have posted it with a spoiler tag. Dont defend their shittiness, mate.

January 25, 2018 at 3:42AM

10
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By the time you get to this scene you'll be sleeping anyway ... so don't worry about it .. (kidding :-)

January 25, 2018 at 3:59AM

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Rod P
162

Would have been a nice surprise. Ruined now.
Thanks for nothing NFS.

January 25, 2018 at 1:51AM, Edited January 25, 1:51AM

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Matthew Stephens
storyboards
329

She looks very natural.

The digital re-creation of Peter Cushing in Star Wars was like an animated cutscene from a PC game. Not that convincing.

January 25, 2018 at 7:00AM

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JeffreyWalther
Steadicam Operator/Owner
1478

The article wasn't uninteresting, but wasn't worth the spoiler. It made a low(er) precedent.

January 25, 2018 at 9:29AM

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Saied M.
1214

some of us have lives, jobs, families; so we wait for films to come out on formats where we can watch them at home - in the UK Bladerunner is released on Blu-Ray on the 5th of February. So basically go fuck yourself and get a life Mr Boone.

January 25, 2018 at 11:14AM, Edited January 25, 11:14AM

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keith
406

I don't think you should be telling someone to get a life when you're the one leaving a negative comment, pal.

January 25, 2018 at 9:35PM

8
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Jwalker
220

Yeah, you really ruined a great moment for people who haven't seen this film. Another reason NFS is a joke of a website. So long!

January 25, 2018 at 4:05PM

0
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Well, it's kind of your fault if you haven't seen the film yet.

January 25, 2018 at 9:35PM, Edited January 25, 9:36PM

1
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Jwalker
220

As a kid, I had a huge crush on Sean Young. Apparently, she hasn't aged and still has those killer 80's shoulder pads!

January 26, 2018 at 1:11PM

3
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Gene Sung
DP / Director
746