The Sopranos

The Sopranos: Why Tony’s Mother Is CGI in Season 3

Tony's mother Livia Soprano appears in CGI in The Sopranos season 3; we look at why that choice was made (and why it's perfect for the scene).

One of the most memorable — and odd — moments in The Sopranos was the bizarre CGI Livia Soprano (Nancy Marchand) who appeared in season 3, which led many viewers to question why showrunner David Chase included the scene. Tragically, Marchand died during the show’s run, which lead to The Sopranos killing off her character offscreen, leaving Tony (James Gandolfini) distraught. Many major cast members meet their end in The Sopranos, but the death of Tony Soprano’s mother undoubtedly affected him the most. Notably, their relationship is further explored in the Sopranos prequel film The Many Saints of Newark, which reveals much about the origins of the Tony Soprano mom issues that defined the series.

In The Sopranos season 3, Marchand only appeared onscreen once, in the aforementioned scene that used CGI. Tony confronts his mother to warn her not to incriminate him to the FBI. The conversation turns into an argument about Livia’s refusal to fill out the books his wife Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) had bought for her 20 years ago — journals designed for her to share her life experiences with her grandkids. The subtext of the scene is clear: Tony is furious with his mother for her refusal to act maternally. Ultimately, Tony Soprano’s mother had to be rendered in CGI because their story wasn’t over yet.

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Why The Sopranos Used CGI For Livia In Season 3

Livia Soprano sits in front of a table with food

The reason for Marchand’s CGI rendering was that she sadly passed away in 2000 between the filming of seasons 2 and 3. Rather than replace the actress, Chase opted to abandon his plans for the character and instead kill her off, using CGI to give her and Tony one final scene together. This was achieved by superimposing Livia’s face onto another actress’s body, cut together with outtakes — all using dialogue recorded from earlier in the series. The effect is, to say the least, uncomfortable, which isn’t surprising. In 2001, the CGI techniques that created de-aged Luke Skywalker and young Eleven from Stranger Things season 4 were 20 years from being perfected, and showrunners had to work with the technology of the time in order to give Tony Soprano’s mother one last scene.

Chase described his motivation for the scene in an interview with the Chicago Tribune back in 2001, stating that he felt the characters needed to have that final onscreen interaction for the sake of the narrative as a whole: “I thought that was needed to have that on the table in that story. Not just have to go back to what had happened in the past.” Tony Soprano both hated and loved his mother, and that experience is fundamental to understanding his character’s motivations.

Chase argues that Tony Soprano’s mother wasn’t just unsupportive and aloof when actually confronted about these issues, “we see Livia continue to think about herself.” The episode clears up any lingering questions of whether she had regrets or redeemed herself before her death. As Chase argues, he ” felt it was necessary to platform the rest of the story” — a story that sees Tony sink deeper and deeper into family turmoil and sociopathic actions.

Why Livia’s Scene In The Sopranos Season 3 Was Perfect

Livia Soprano looking upwards in The Sopranos.

There’s an added thematic bonus to having the late actor appear through CGI – in that moment, it magnifies Tony’s own feelings towards his mother. Livia comes across as a creepy almost-but-not-quite human, and this monstrous quality mirrors the nature of her cruelty toward her son, adding more weight to the Tony Soprano mom issues that he will never get passed. Though there are hints Livia Soprano suffered from dementia, it’s also clear that she is simply a terrible person

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By The Sopranos season 3, Tony Soprano’s mother has betrayed him, rejected his love, and gone out of her way to hurt him over and over. Tony doesn’t believe he deserves this treatment, and he doesn’t understand it. In Tony’s eyes, Livia has become a facsimile of herself, a ghostlike representation of their toxic history. This is further reflected in Tony’s reaction to Livia’s death, as Tony fuels his self-hatred by convincing himself that he didn’t love her enough and that he never deserved his own mother’s love.

The roots of Tony’s self-hate are unearthed in The Many Saints of Newark, where it’s revealed that both Tony’s father and mother weren’t much of parents to the boy. As a result, Tony ended up looking to his “uncle” Dickie Moltisanti for guidance. While Dickie’s death in the ending of Many Saints of Newark gave Tony the resolve to do right by his family, Livia’s death only pushed Tony further into deeper waters. Just like Dickie and Tony’s pinkie swear during Dickie’s funeral, Livia’s last moments in crude CGI actually fits within the subtle magic realism of the Sopranos universe.

Although the infamous Sopranos season 3 moment is indeed an instance of poor CGI drawing attention to itself, in this case, the uncanny valley quality was actually perfect for what the show was trying to say. Tony and Livia have a complicated relationship in The Sopranos, and the late Marchand and Gandolfini were truly masterful in fleshing this out onscreen. Both late actors were undeniably incredibly talented, and their onscreen dynamic contributed to what makes The Sopranos one of the best dramas of all time.

Was The CGI Tony Soprano Mom Crossing A Line?

Livia Soprano wearing pink in The Sopranos

The Livia Sopranos CGI solution might have been one of the few options available to the show in order to end this Sopranos storyline without Nancy Marchand. However, as the methods of creating a performance from a deceased actor become used more often, there continue to be questions raised about how ethical it all is. One of the most questionable uses of this was creating a CGI version of Peter Cushing to reprise his role as Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, using another actor’s voice to create an entirely new performance that Cushing had no actual part in playing.

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There is an important difference between what Rogue One did and what The Sopranos. Rather than recast the role or feature a new character, Rogue One brought Tarkin back to serve the nostalgia of fans. By contrast, The Sopranos felt they needed to complete Livia’s arc which could have been seen as a way of honoring Nancy Marchand as a key part of the series. However, the fact remains that a performance by Marchand was created artificially without the actor’s consent. With the rise of deepfakes already causing concern for what rights actors have with digital alterations to their performances, it is a complex question to ask whether The Sopranos went too far to serve their story.

Who Is Tony Soprano’s Mother In Many Saints Of Newark?

Many Saints Sopranos Livia

Livia Soprano lived on through The Many Saints of Newark actor Vera Farmiga, a casting choice that underscores how Tony’s behavior in The Sopranos reflects Livia’s overbearing presence. As Tony’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi once suggested–much to Tony’s disgust–that he might have been chasing after women that reminded him of his mother in The Sopranos.

This discussion was reinvigorated when audiences quickly realized that Many Saints of Newark’s Livia Soprano actor bears a striking resemblance to Edie Falco, who played Tony’s wife Carmela in The Sopranos. Apart from looking like Falco, Vera Farmiga comfortably stays in the looming shadow of Marchand’s iconic role – a masterful performance that brings to life stories about Tony’s mother that The Sopranos only touched on.

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