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Movies

Why the Death Note villain had to be played by two actors

Director Adam Wingard’s horror-thriller premieres Aug. 25 on Netflix

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How many people does it require to portray a nine-foot-tall death god? Two!

In the new Netflix horror film Death Note (available Aug. 25), a high-schooler named Light is gifted an ominous — and, as it turns out, murderous — book by a red-eyed supernatural entity called Ryuk. While Light is played by Nat Wolff, Ryuk is depicted jointly by Willem Dafoe, who both voices the creature and was responsible for laying the groundwork for his CG facial movements, and physical performer Jason Liles, who portrayed him on-set and in costume.

“I really wanted there to be something on set,” says Death Note director Adam Wingard (You’re Next, The Guest). “I wanted there to be lights hitting this thing and I wanted the actors to be interacting with something. Early on, we actually explored creating a full-scale animatronic — a full-on eight-foot-tall, old-school thing. We did some tests on it and we just didn’t have enough time to get it to work. You’d tell the eyes to look in one direction, and the left eye would look, and after a second the other eye would look. So, it had a lot of problems. The way that we did it was, on set, there’s a seven-foot-tall actor named Jason Liles, who’s actually in costume. Everything you see in the film is a hundred percent real except for the face.”

Wingard shot Dafoe’s performance as Ryuk — or, at least, of Ryuk’s visage — during post-production, with Oscar-winning VFX artist Randall Cook (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) subsequently transforming the motion-captured movements into something even more devilish thanks to the wonders of CGI.

“It wasn’t a full-body mo-cap, it was just for his face,” says Wingard. “Because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that we couldn’t achieve on set. It was a breeze, honestly. I told him from the get-go, ‘Here’s the edit, this is what Jason is doing, but don’t feel like you have to match everything, because we can always re-edit this around whatever you want to do.’ We kept it open, and tried to keep it lively, so that he had room to really perform and do his own thing.”

Watch the trailer for Death Note above and a clip featuring Ryuk, below.

Death Note premieres Aug. 25 on Netflix.