When Nicholas Cage took on the title role in 2007 Ghost rider, no one expected this flaming skull to be his real skull. Cage could be forgiven for allowing the CGI and special effects teams to create the supernatural superhero from scratch. However, Cage and the crew used techniques to enable him to really get into the Cavalier’s head … in ways more morbid than one.
The public has scrutinized Cage’s portrayal of Johnny Blaze due to interference from the CGI staff for years. Speculation that Cage’s hard abs set was the result of CGI deception has been largely debunked, while the removal of his flaming skull arm tattoos from post-production has been confirmed. . You would think that the sequences where Blaze’s skull is set ablaze would also be 100% the result of computer artists. However, the disturbing truth is that the viewer is looking at Nicolas Cage’s real skull.
Not literally, of course. The skull in these sequences is based on X-rays of Cage’s skull. In fact, his entire body was scanned to create the Spirit of Vengeance big screen. Alan Bielik of Animation World Network reported that a full 3-D scan of Cage was placed on his actual performance. This allowed them to better match Cage’s moves, ensuring that the CGI Ghost Rider was presumably the same character Cage was playing. According to Screen Rant, it took a few hours for Cage to be scanned, but it was necessary to have a virtual version of himself to facilitate his performance.
The implications of Cage’s skull visible on-screen add an edge to Cage’s process. The Oscar-winning actor brings a lot of intense preparation to his roles, and Ghost rider was no different. Invoking his love for the original comics, he also devised a unique strategy for the scenes where he beat the bad guys. In the press tour for the sequel to the film, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), he discussed his “New Shamanic” technique where he put on Afro-Caribbean face paint and sewed Egyptian artifacts into his costume to fully inhabit the mystical character of those moments. Even if this job wasn’t obvious to audiences in either movie, it would have been a shame to lose that unique energy that Cage brought to the shoot.
This attempt to retain the actors’ personalities in their CGI alter egos has been continued and refined in future Marvel films. Audiences can’t watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s Hulk or Thanos and not notice Mark Ruffalo’s frown or Josh Brolin’s smile on their faces. Keeping the continuity with these facial movements and gestures not only makes the characters more believable in live-action, but gives them the same humanity that has allowed comic book readers to connect with them for decades.
The motion capture technology used for these transformations was still in its infancy when Ghost rider was in production in 2006. It was always important that the main movie star be present in the big action sets. Their charisma is essential to the success of any action movie, even if they have a flaming skull. It’s an issue that makes essential work like removing character tattoos or an actor’s training regimen seem minor in comparison. Fortunately, Cage’s whole body scan served that purpose as well as Mo-Cap.
One might wonder if the morbid touch of using Cage’s real skull was necessary. However, if there’s ever been a performance that required such a subtle touch, it’s Cage as Ghost Rider. The approach he brought to the role captures the quirky nature of the character. His physical presence disappearing during his biggest scenes would have hurt his passion and hard work. The fact that the creative team was able to put a little of himself into these sequences allowed Cage to be present in all phases of his character. It’s a great example of everyone on a movie working together to achieve the impossible. After all, that’s the least the team can do after Cage meets them halfway through working on his abs.
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