What Actors Need to Know About Digital Stunt Doubles

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Photo Source: Amazon. Pictured – Dominique McElligott as Queen Maeve in The Boys

Acting in the Digital Age is a series that explores the opportunities and challenges of a rapidly changing industry. In this edition, Backstage looks at the rise of digital stuntwork, and what it means for actors and stunt performers.

Over the last few years, film and TV productions have started using digital stunt doubles for certain action scenes. A copy of a character is made completely out of pixels, and inserted into a sequence – often to complete a superhuman feat that an actor, or even a well-trained stunt performer, simply couldn’t do.

“The increased use of digi-doubles has allowed TV and film creatives to come up with more elaborate stunt and action sequences,” says Pedro Sabrosa, a VFX supervisor from the London-based effects company Framestore. “It allows characters to do things that would have otherwise have been impossible or difficult to execute practically. VFX studios have also become better and more efficient at creating and using these assets, so the quality is better and they’re also becoming less costly to create and use.”

But what does this mean for the performers that are being replaced in these scenes? Below, we dive deep into the world of digital doubles to ascertain the important information that actors need to know.


It starts with the actor

“We usually start with a digital photo scan of the actor,” says Sabrosa, explaining the work that goes into making a double. “This gives us a 3D model and texture references of the actor which we then use as the basis for building our digital asset. How the digi-double is to be used within the production will dictate how much goes into developing and finessing the asset.”

You might find yourself getting scanned without even knowing which scenes, if any, your digital double will be used for. As Sabrosa says: “It is now very common to scan actors for TV and film productions, even if it’s not clear from the outset how and if a digi-double will be used. This gives the production flexibility to create new shots or modify existing shots later in post-production.”

VFX is on your side

Sabrosa is keen to assure actors: “VFX is on your side! We always endeavour to use an actor’s performance as the basis for our digi-doubles. In some cases, this translates directly into what the digital versions do. But for more elaborate stunts, we may need to completely create a performance for that moment. However, even in these cases, we are always referencing actors’ real performances to make sure our work fits seamlessly with what the actor has done.”

The video above shows Framestore’s work on Amazon’s superhero series The Boys, where alongside adding a digital car flip to a practical stunt involving actual vehicles, Sabrosa’s team mixed Dominique McElligott’s performance as Queen Maeve with a digital double that could be smashed through a truck without endangering anyone.

“Queen Maeve in The Boys is a great example of how digi-doubles are used for stunt work,” enthuses Sabrosa. “The digi-double was only used for a few shots, but allowed the character to do some amazing things that otherwise may not have been possible or feasible within the constraints of the production.”

Physical stunts are not going away

Stuntman Dean Williams on set with Dave Bautista

Dean Williams, a stunt performer and stunt coordinator that has scuffled with the likes of Dave Bautista on film, spoke to Backstage about the rise of digital stunts and whether it has impacted his workload. And even though digital doubles can do amazing things, it seems stuntmen and stuntwomen are not out of work. 

“I don’t think the rise of digital technology has changed the nature of stunt work drastically for me,” Williams tells us. “Most stunties on the big Hollywood productions are probably having some days cut due to the introduction of CGI and SFX rather than more practical stunts, but I think that on the whole, most productions need the help, guidance, and performance of a stunt team. I tend to focus a lot on fights and falls which has a slightly more practical tendency than some other skill sets such as pyrotechnics and vehicle stunts.”

Revealing more uses of CGI in stunts that actors should be aware of, Williams recounts examples he’s witnessed of the physical interacting with the digital: “I have worked alongside visual effects people a few times when doing green screen work as well as having fought a high-profile actor that was being doubled by his stunt double for a particular scene, and we had to 3D face-map the actor onto the stunt performer. I once played a werewolf in a movie that changed midway through a scene digitally, and also on a few occasions I have had to have gunfire added in post-production.”

There is room for both

Everyone seems to agree that there is room for physical and digital to flourish in the field of stunts, with well-executed combinations of the two allowing actors and their characters to achieve great things.

Williams says: “In an ideal world, both digital technology and pure stunt work should be able to work together. It often comes down to the director who – in pretty much every production I have worked on – takes great pride in filming what they can, and using digital technology at a bare minimum to enhance a scene, not detract from it.”

Pedro SabrosaSabrosa (pictured, left) thinks along similar lines: “I believe [the rise of digital stunts] has had a positive impact. I think stunts and VFX are working more collaboratively, allowing us to create more elaborate and innovative sequences by combining the most appropriate skills from both departments. The two disciplines working together is allowing us to create sequences where it is difficult to see where the stunts end and VFX start.”

Speaking to these artists on opposing sides of the VFX fence, it seems clear it’s an exciting time for the industry, with a lot of collaboration going on between different disciplines. For actors, it seems wise to go into any action-oriented production expecting to see VFX blending with practical stunts, and to be prepared for the digital scans and green-screen acting that might be required. Remember that everyone is on your side, and if the team works collaboratively, the whole thing can come together wonderfully.


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