Bruce Lee is known the world over the most significant and exemplary martial artist of all time. His influence is felt through every facet of martial combat that exists today; but before that he was a brash young troublemaker with a penchant for street fighting with gang members. When he was 16 years old, he began training in Wing Chun kung fu under renowned martial artist Ip Man, who himself had been training since he was 7 years old. Ip Man's skills were so well known that he was able to give private lessons to high paying clients and was one of the first to teach his students publicly. His exploits and accomplishments, as well as his role in providing the foundation of the martial arts philosophies that Bruce Lee would later base his own on, have served to propel Ip Man into almost as legendary a status as his most famous pupil.
The Ip Man series of films are regarded as among the finest martial arts films to come out of China in recent years, both starring Donnie Yen as the titular Wing Chun kung fu master. Prior to the release of the first film, the producers planned for the sequel to revolve around the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee, but they were unable to fully finalize negotiations with Lee's estate on the film rights, so it instead focused on Ip Man's move to Hong Kong and his attempts to engender Wing Chun in the region. Although they were unable to feature Lee as a young man, he does have a brief cameo as a child at the end of the film portrayed by then 10-year-old Jiang Dai Yan. Upon its release, the second film was also positively received, although not as much as the first but that hasn't stopped fans from clamoring for a follow up, hopefully one that would finally feature Bruce Lee and show the beginning of his training.
Earlier this week, production company Pegasus Motion Pictures and Donnie Yen himself announced that filming had begun for the third installment in the film franchise! Shortly after, news broke that Bruce Lee would be appearing in the film as a young student of Ip Man; but since the filmmakers were unable to find an actor who could properly portray Lee's intensity onscreen, they have decided to instead recreate the actor via CGI. This news has been met with polarized reactions from fans across the globe, reflecting the opinions of recreating older and deceased actors in there younger appearances for feature films, especially one as highly admired and respected as Lee. And while this will surely prove to be a challenging undertaking for the filmmakers, there is a precedent for digitally recreating and replacing actors in feature films.
Digital replacement technology was still in its infancy when it was employed to finish The Crow, ironically the final film of Lee's only son, Brandon Lee. The director had a stand-in complete several pickup shots and replaced his face with Brandon's in post production. The minimal requirements and usage of shadows helped hide this convincingly. Taken a step further, a combination of old footage and CGI was used to have both Marlon Brando and Laurence Olivier appear in Superman Returns and Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, respectively, years after their deaths. The technology was taken to new heights when it came to the production of Tron: Legacy, the sequel to the original 1984 film. In order for star Jeff Bridges to portray his digital doppelganger CLU (who appears almost 30 years younger), the effects team took a digital mould reconstructed digitally and matched it to the on-set performance of Bridges and his stunt double. It took over two years to not create the likeness and movements (such as muscle movement) of the character. More recent applications include the sudden deaths of Phillip Seymour Hoffman and Paul Walker, who both died during production of their respective final films The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 2 and Furious 7. In Hoffman's case, it is said very little CGI will be used, with the filmmakers opting to rewrite the remaining key scenes involving his character. In Walker's case, roughly 60% of the film had been completed when he passed away, so the studio brought in four actors with bodies very similar to his physique, using his face and voice with the use of CGI to finish his scenes, with his younger brothers, Caleb and Cody being used as stand-ins.
So, there are a variety of different techniques and technologies in place for the filmmakers to take advantage of in bringing Bruce Lee convincingly to life in Ip Man 3. And while the aforementioned examples apply to other stars throughout the years, this is not the first time a digital recreation of Lee has been pursued. Since his death, his likeness has appeared in several video games, commercials, etc, in an effort to keep his legend alive. In 2013, Li Jin (an animation teacher at CUC Anima) completed a three-year CGI short film called A Warrior's Dream, which mirthfully depicted Lee fighting against Donnie Yen as part of an imaginary dream sequence. The time and work poured into the project shines through extremely well, as the moves and mannerisms of both men carries through miraculously well.
Also in 2013, music video and film director Joseph Kahn (Torque, Power/Rangers) directed a commercial for Johnnie Walker that featured a CGI reconstruction of Lee giving a monologue in a lavish apartment. The effect was achieved by having a stand-in act on set and the vfx artists going in and layering a digital scan of Lee's face over the performance. The result is both jarring and extremely emotional as it brings the actor to life in a way that no other attempt had before in such an extremely subtle way.
Video game publisher EA Sports included Lee as a bonus unlockable fighter in their 2014 release, EA Sports UFC. Like with Ip Man 3, the decision to include Lee here was seen as nothing more than a gimmick and not a serious attempt to pay homage to Lee and his legacy. The developers at EA felt that Lee's philosophies laid the groundwork for modern mixed martial arts and as the most iconic martial artist in history, his place in the lineage of MMA more than justified his inclusion. Unlike a short film or a commercial, Lee's representation in a video game is the closest to having him appear on film, since his movements and mannerisms can be broken down, studied and viewed from multiple angles repeatedly for an infinite amount of time, and they have to be able to stand up to that. The staff at EA were provided with not only a vast catalog of digital references spanning Bruce’s acting career, as well as many behind-the-scenes and candid shots that helped identify and select the most iconic elements of his face and body. Additionally, they were given a life-cast to serve as a three-dimensional reference that would prove to be the next best thing to actually having Lee's body digitally scanned.
Since his death over 40 years ago, Bruce Lee has been portrayed in numerous films by a large amount of actors ranging from the comically satirical to serious homages, the most recent being Jason Scott Lee's portrayal in Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, Danny Chan in The Legend of Bruce Lee mini series and Aarif Rahman in Bruce Lee, My Brother. Of these three, only Jason Scott Lee has come anywhere close to matching Lee's explosive fury and philosophical tranquility, as well as his sarcastic humor. As anyone who has seen Lee's films can tell you, portraying him is more than just throwing punches and kicks and whooping and shrieking. It's the way he carries himself, his state of consummate calm and composed fury. Ian Lloyd, Art Director for EA SPORTS UFC, put it best:
"When one thinks of Bruce Lee’s body what comes to mind is not a person, in the traditional sense, but rather a ‘super-human’ expression of coiled power, control and flexibility. Ridiculously shredded, broad cobra-hood back, tiny waist. Every muscle contracted, ready to spring into lethal action."
With filming currently underway in Shanghai, it will be some time yet before we see Donnie Yen presumably going toe-to-toe with a CGI rendering of Bruce Lee. Hopefully, the filmmakers will take everything that's been mentioned here into consideration and make the best decisions which will result in a great testament to the name and legacy of Bruce Lee. Because if this is done wrong, this could blow up in their faces and go down as just another failed gimmick trying to milk money from his name.