We were tasked with writing a captivating case study for our client Faceware Technologies, focusing on how its tools aided visual effects house Atomic Fiction on the 2015 biographical drama, The Walk. We spoke with Atomic Fiction’s CG Supervisor, Rudy Grossman to find out how Faceware’s advanced face replacement technologies were used to recreate history’s most famed high-wire stunt.
Our goal was to discover how Faceware enabled smaller and mid-sized studios, like Atomic Fiction, to work on lean-budgeted films such as The Walk.
On 7am, August 7 1974, the Frenchman made his first steps out onto a 450-pound steel cable – one that reached out from one of New York City’s highest points to the other – the 1,300ft high 1 and 2 World Trade Centers.
For over 45 minutes this performer, madman, visionary – whatever you chose to call him – walked back and forth across the wire eight times, also taking the time to stop and dance, kneel, and even lay down, all while suspended a quarter of a mile above the stunned crowds below.
Extraordinarily, Petit survived, returning to the bottom and into the handcuffs of a disbelieving NYPD. It’s a story of such wide-eyed wonder that it should come as no surprise that director Robert Zemeckis selected it as the subject for his 2015 blockbuster The Walk.
Of course, with the World Trade Center’s Twin Towers no longer standing, sophisticated visual effects were required to bring the stunning act to life on the big screen. And yet it wasn’t just a case of meticulously recreating the seventies New York City streets in digital form. Other techniques were required to convince the audience that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt was not to 1,300ft in the air, but that he was also capable of tightrope walking with all the capacity of a seasoned professional.
A little help from Faceware was required…
The vast majority of shots in The Walk required some form of digital enhancement – some 672 out of 826 in total. The Oakland, California-based Atomic Fiction led the charge, delivering 250 of those challenging shots under the direction of visual effects supervisor and studio co-founder Kevin Baillie.
“Faceware was key to achieving the visual fidelity you see in The Walk’s facial performances today”
Atomic Fiction was tasked with creating a fully 3D version of New York City, accurate to 1974 as viewed from that vertigo-inspiring elevation point. However, the studio also needed to create a fully digital double of Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Petit to integrate into these shots. In order to really sell the concept of the famous actor performing history’s most famed high-wire stunt, advanced face replacements technology was required.
“It was really important to Zemeckis that we always maintained the illusion of Joseph performing the stunts himself,” begins Rudy Grossman, CG supervisor at Atomic Fiction. “Several shots, which recreated Philippe Petit’s real-life stunts, could only be performed by an experienced master high-wire artists. To achieve this, we had to replace the face of the stunt performer with the performance of Joe’s acting.”
32 shots across The Walk required this process. “We had to take the footage of Jade Kindar-Martin, a former Cirque du Soleil performer turned stuntman, and overlay the face and performance of Gordon-Levitt,” explains Grossman.
A tough task indeed, but one made possible via the application of Faceware’s suite of tools.