How do you erase Kevin Spacey from a Hollywood movie?

Removing a star actor from a film that has already been edited is unusual but it's not very difficult, according to a Toronto special effects compositor.

'Replace the head' special effects compositor says Kevin Spacey can be erased from a film within weeks

Kevin Spacey appears in a scene from the trailer of Ridley Scott's upcoming film All the Money in the World. Scott plans to remove Spacey from the finished film and replace him with a performance by Christopher Plummer. (Sony Pictures Entertainment/YouTube)

Leaving a star actor on the cutting room floor is unusual, but not completely uncommon for Hollywood. 

Yet filmmaker Ridley Scott's bold decision to completely replace Kevin Spacey's performance from a finished, high-profile project — kidnap drama All the Money in the World, that's heading to cinemas in less than two months — has been hailed as unprecedented

Moving quickly amid mounting allegations of sexual misconduct, harassment and assault against the Oscar-winning actor and former House of Cards star, the veteran director, his producers and Sony/TriStar Pictures revealed the extraordinary, late-in-the-game move on Wednesday.

The studio, which had already pulled the $40 million US movie from a planned film festival screening this week, defended All the Money in the World as a substantial undertaking by a massive collective, whose work shouldn't be tossed away because of a single participant.

It would be a gross injustice to punish all of [the cast, craftspeople and crew] for the wrongdoings of one supporting actor.- Sony/TriStar Pictures

"A film is not the work of one person. There are over 800 other actors, writers, artists, craftspeople and crew who worked tirelessly and ethically on this film, some for years, including one of cinema's master directors," the studio said in a statement. 

"It would be a gross injustice to punish all of them for the wrongdoings of one supporting actor in the film. Accordingly, the film will open wide as planned on December 22."

The reshoot will likely require flying Connecticut-based Plummer overseas to film, plus the return of stars Michelle Williams and Mark Wahlberg, along with other cast and crew. Staff must dutifully recreate, match or creatively reimagine the scenes in question and, potentially, visual effects will be called on for more post-production work. 

One producer and film consultant, writing in Forbes, estimated the additional work would run upwards of $5 million US.

Christopher Plummer, at right, said he didn't feel like he's replacing Spacey in All the Money in the World, because he was originally up for the part when the movie was being cast. (Associated Press)

Typically, a decision to replace an actor is made while shooting, say if a director feels a performance isn't quite right — Eric Stoltz being swapped for Michael J. Fox in Back to the Future for instance, or Harvey Keitel being dropped for Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now. Earlier footage is usually scrapped.

In the case of Samantha Morton losing out to Scarlett Johansson in Her or Colin Firth being replaced as the lead in Paddington by Ben Whishaw, the change occurred after shooting had wrapped. However, both instances involved voice-only performances, so the replacement was made in editing.

For Gladiator, Scott famously employed CGI to complete his 2000 epic after the death of actor Oliver Reed three weeks prior to the end of principal filming. Visual effects artists were able to map Reed's head onto that of a body double. 

Amy Daye is a compositor with the special effects company Mr. X in Toronto. She says swapping stunt or stand-in actors out of films is routine. (CBC News)

Using stand-ins or stunt doubles on films is routine today, said Amy Daye, lead compositor with Toronto visual effects company Mr. X.

For instance, artists could simply lop off Spacey's head and replace it with Plummer's, given that the two men are close in height.

"It would be very difficult to recreate the exact setting with the exact camera and the exact lighting," Daye told CBC News on Thursday. 

"It might be easier to simply take Christopher Plummer… and put him overtop of Kevin Spacey."

Daye said VFX artists could swap the faces and would take about one week to complete one shot. The rest of the face-swapping work could take four to five weeks in total. 

"There might still be some Kevin Spacey in there," said Daye. "That would be the fastest way to do it for sure."

Morals clauses

But according to Toronto entertainment lawyer David Zitzerman, swapping faces could present legal problems. How do you compensate an actor whose body, but not face, is still in a movie?

Zitzerman said the flood of sexual harassment allegations in the entertainment industry will change the way lawyers draft film contracts for actors. 

"They're going to be a lot stronger going forward," said Zitzerman, who explained that morals clauses are extremely common in big-budget films. 

"You need broad wording. It really has to talk about any sort of activity that would lead to disrepute, any kind of scandal, anything that would lead the public to form a very negative point of view [about the project] and that should be the grounds for termination," he said.

"Broadly drafted morals clauses are what's going to come out of this."

It is not clear if Spacey's contract included a morals clause, but Zitzerman said if it did, the production company may have the option to sue the actor for breach of contract and recoup some of the losses. 

It reportedly took five hours to transform Spacey into the likeness of J. Paul Getty for the film. (Sony Pictures)