It was double trouble on the set of Netflix’s Death Note.
The live-action adaptation of the beloved Japanese manga written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata, Death Note centers around a high school student named Light Turner (whose surname is Yagami in the source material) who discovers a supernatural notebook belonging to a Shinigami, or “death spirit,” named Ryuk. By simply scrawling in the notebook the names of people whose faces he knows, Light can kill them. While Light is played by The Fault in Our Stars breakout Nat Wolff, the red-eyed entity Ryuk is depicted by Willem Dafoe… plus one other actor.
Chatting with Entertainment Weekly, Death Note director Adam Wingard revealed that two actors were needed to depict the nine-foot-tall monstrous god. Dafoe provided the voice and the groundwork for Ryuk’s facial movements, while physical performer Jason Liles portrayed the character on-set and in costume.
Wingard explained his decision to bring in a second actor to play Ryuk: “I really wanted there to be something on set. I wanted there to be lights hitting [Ryuk] and I wanted the actors to be interacting with something. Early on, we actually explored creating a full-scale animatronic—a full-on eight-foot-tall, old-school thing. We did some tests on it and we just didn’t have enough time to get it to work. You’d tell the eyes to look in one direction, and the left eye would look, and after a second the other eye would look. So, it had a lot of problems. The way that we did it was, on set, there’s a seven-foot-tall actor named Jason Liles, who’s actually in costume. Everything you see in the film is a hundred percent real except for the face.”
The director shot Dafoe’s performance of Ryuk’s face during post-production on the film. Using CGI technology, Oscar-winning VFX artist Randall Cook (the Lord of the Rings trilogy) then transformed the motion-capture movements into Ryuk’s terrifying visage as seen in the Death Note trailers.
“It wasn’t a full-body mo-cap, it was just for his face,” explained Wingard. “Because, at the end of the day, that’s the only thing that we couldn’t achieve on set. It was a breeze, honestly. I told him from the get-go, ‘Here’s the edit, this is what Jason is doing, but don’t feel like you have to match everything, because we can always re-edit this around whatever you want to do.’ We kept it open, and tried to keep it lively, so that he had room to really perform and do his own thing.”
Viewers can catch Ryuk in all his deathly glory when Death Note arrives on Netflix on August 25. In the meantime, check out the best Netflix-exclusive movies and television shows you can watch right now.