Here’s how Fast & Furious 7 was able to finish Paul Walker’s scenes following the actor’s death. The seventh installment in the high-octane franchise was rocked with tragedy when Walker was killed in a vehicular crash in November 2013, at a time when production was only partway done. Having played Brian O’Conner — a former lawman-turned-outlaw and Robin to Dominic Toretto’s (Vin Diesel) Batman — since the original The Fast and the Furious in 2001, Walker’s tragic passing left a massive hole in the popular film series. Understandably, the movie’s creatives gave serious thought to canceling Fast & Furious 7 afterwards, rather than trying to finish it without him.
Of course, that didn’t happen, and the movie went on to become a massive box office success (grossing over $1.5 billion in theaters worldwide), in addition to earning widespread acclaim for the touching and tasteful way it “retires” Walker’s Fast & Furious character. But in order to both finish the film and given O’Conner a fitting conclusion to his personal journey, the Fast & Furious 7 production team (including screenwriter Chris Morgan, director James Wan, and their many VFX artists) had to think decidedly outside the box.
After the ending and O’Conner’s storyline in Fast & Furious 7 were rewritten, the film’s crew set about the task of producing some 350 additional shots of Walker to flesh out his role in the movie, 90 of which used archived footage of the actor from previous outtakes or shots from earlier Fast & Furious films, which were then relit and repurposed. The other 260 shots were completed by having Walker’s brothers, Caleb and Cody, perform his scenes in character, only for their faces to be replaced with CGI versions of Walker’s during post-production. Since the pair have more or less the same physiques as Walker, they didn’t require any digital tweaking beyond that. As Weta VFX supervisor Joe Letteri explained to THR in 2015, the Fast & Furious 7 effects team created the CGI replacement for Walker’s face by first scanning his brothers, in order to use them as a point of reference.
In the end, though, they ended up using older footage of Walker as reference the most “because as close as the brothers were in style and mannerisms, they just weren’t Paul when Paul played his character,” according to Letteri. Complicating matters, many of these shots included dialogue, which the movie’s sound editors had to create by drawing from existing dialogue previously recorded by Walker. Letteri also touched on the process of crafting Walker’s CGI face and how the film’s VFX artists had to be extra careful to prevent the effect from landing somewhere in the “uncanny valley” (e.g. when a digitally-rendered human is close to the real thing, but off just enough to look creepy instead of convincing). While the final result wasn’t flawless, it was nevertheless very impressive, considering the major obstacles the movie’s VFX artists had to overcome. It all culminated in the final scene in Fast & Furious 7, where Dom and Brian have one final “race”, but are far more invested in simply enjoying their time riding together, just before reaching a fork in the road and heading off in separate directions. It was an undeniably poignant sendoff for Walker, and one that Diesel went so far as to proclaim as maybe “the best moment in cinematic history”.
While the moment provided a lovely sendoff for Walker’s O’Conner, F9 (aka, F9: The Fast Saga) featured a non-visual cameo of the character. At the end of the film, Dom pauses before the family of friends says grace, saying that there’s one empty chair at the table. Mia’s response is “he’s on the way,” just before a blue Nissan Skyline drives up to the home and pulls up into the driveway. The car is obviously a nod to Walker’s character, who drove the vehicle throughout the Fast and Furious franchise. And while O’Conner was not a factor in Fast & Furious 8, teasing his appearance at the end of F9 caused many to speculate about the ways in which he could show up in the future saga movies (with the help of CGI). Ultimately, Fast & Furious 7 bid O’Conner farewell in a satisfactory way and time will tell whether the filmmakers do bring him back through digital rendering as the film franchise comes to a close.