Nicolas Cage’s Ghost Rider Hid a Morbid Secret in His Skull, Skin and Abs

When Nicholas Cage took on the title role in 2007's Ghost Rider, no one expected that flaming skull to be his actual skull. One could forgive Cage for allowing the CGI and special effects teams to create the supernatural superhero from scratch. However, Cage and the crew used techniques to allow him to truly get into the Rider's head... in more morbid ways than one.

Audiences have scrutinized Cage's depiction of Johnny Blaze due to the CGI team's interference for years. Speculation that Cage's rock-hard set of abs was the result of CGI trickery has largely been debunked, while the removal of his real-life flaming skull arm tattoos in post-production has been confirmed. One would think that the sequences where Blaze's skull sets ablaze would also be 100 percent the result of the computer artists. However, the disturbing truth is that the viewer is looking at Nicolas Cage's actual skull.

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Not literally, of course. The skull in those sequences is based on x-ray scans of Cage's own skull. In fact, his whole body was scanned to create the big screen Spirit of Vengeance. Alan Bielik of the Animation World Network reported that an entire 3-D scan of Cage was put over his actual performance. This allowed them to better match the movements to Cage's own, ensuring that the CGI Ghost Rider was believably the same character that 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 aid his performance.

The implications of Cage's skull being visible on the screen brings a fitting edge to Cage's process. The Academy Award-winning actor brings a lot of intense preparation to his roles, and Ghost Rider was no different. Summoning up his love for the original comics, he also devised a unique strategy for the scenes where he was beating up on bad guys. In the press tour for the film's sequel, Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance (2012), he discussed his "Nouveau Shamanic" technique where he would put on Afro-Caribbean face paint and sew Egyptian artifacts into his costume to fully inhabit the mystical character in those moments. Even if this work wasn't obvious to audiences in either movie, it would have been a shame to lose that unique energy Cage brought to set.

This attempt to retain actors' personalities in their CGI alter egos has been continued and refined in future Marvel films. Audiences can't look at the Marvel Cinematic Universe's Hulk or Thanos and not notice Mark Ruffalo's frown or Josh Brolin's smile on their faces. Keeping 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 made comic book readers connect with them for decades.

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The motion capture technology used for those transformations was still in its early days when Ghost Rider was in production in 2006.  It still was important that the main movie star be present in the big action set-pieces. Their charisma is essential to any action movie's success, even if they have a flaming skull. It's an issue that makes essential work such as removing character tattoos or an actor's training regimen look minor in comparison. Luckily, the full-body scan of Cage accomplished that goal just as well as Mo-Cap would.

One might ask if the morbid touch of using Cage's real skull was needed. However, if there ever was a performance that demanded such a subtle touch, it's Cage as Ghost Rider. The approach he brought to the role captures the off-kilter nature of the character. His physical presence disappearing during his biggest scenes would have done a disservice to his passion and hard work. The fact the creative team was able to put a little bit of himself into those sequences enabled Cage to be present in all phases of his character. It's a great example of everyone on a film working together to achieve the impossible. After all, it's the least the team could do after Cage met them halfway by working on his abs.

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Troy Peterson (1 Articles Published)

Troy Peterson is a Movie Features Writer at CBR. He's finally making watching over 4,000 films, creating franchise timelines, and film school pay off one article at a time. However he can never rest until he can find the original screenplay for Superman III. You can enable his cinephilia by following him on Letterboxd .

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