The original Rachael from Blade Runner, Sean Young
Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve and with dizzying cinematography by Roger Deakins, is a visual marvel from start to finish. But if you’ve seen the film [and here is your spoiler warning for if you haven’t] you’ll know one of the most spectacular stunts to pull off was to bring back Sean Young’s Rachael from the 1982 original, seemingly unchanged. EW spoke to Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor John Nelson — who worked on Rachael’s two-minute appearance in 2049 for a year. “Digital humans are sort of like the holy grail — they’re really hard,” says Nelson. “I knew it would be one of the hardest things I’ve done in my career. We had many challenges in this movie but this one was definitely the hardest one we did.”
Building a mystery
Loren Peta, an English actress, was cast and put in full makeup and hair to be shot alongside Harrison Ford during the film’s production. Sean Young herself was on the set that day (her son also worked on the film as a production assistant) as an advisor. “It was all very secret — this was our seriously-can’t-talk-about-it thing,” says Nelson. (The character’s code name, even amongst the crew, was “Rita.”) Peta had dots on her face so that everything from the neck up could be replaced and rebuilt with CG.
Close attention to the original Blade Runner was essential in trying to capture Sean Young as Rachael’s mannerisms. “I never thought I would learn so much about makeup but I did,” says Nelson, who paid close attention to Young’s cheekbones, chin, eyes and head tilting. “It’s one thing to make a digital double look real, it’s another to make them perform and act.”
Villeneuve directed Peta on the soundstage alongside Ford. “But then he got to direct it again when we did all the CG work,” says Nelson. “All of those little moments of the mannerisms that we drilled into from the original movie, we incorporated those into the performance digitally.” One thing Nelson particularly is happy with? “I’m really proud of those flyaway hairs,” he says. “Digital hair is really beautiful but sometimes it can be too perfect. So we made flyaway hair the way it would in real life.” One particular “super secret” Saturday in Budapest, both Sean Young and Loren Peta were put in a facial motion-capture rig and filmed, with both women saying Rachael’s dialogue from the film. It greatly helped the animators later on in the complicated human-building process. “Only a couple of places could do it,” says Nelson of the visual effects company MPC that worked on building Rachael’s face from model to skeleton to human.
The future is now
As spectacular the results are, Nelson is certain that real-life SAG members needn’t worry about being replaced by computer replicants. “Doing digital human work is so incredibly hard. To do these shots took an amazing amount of time,” he says. “I think real actors are safe for a long while.”