Gemini Man took an exceptionally long time to reach the big screen. In fact, producer Jerry Bruckheimer has been attached to the project for over a decade. Now that the movie is finally in theaters, with Will Smith in the lead role and Ang Lee directing, it's no wonder that the filmmakers were in a celebratory mood at a recent press conference in support of the film.
In attendance were Bruckheimer, Smith, Lee, co-star Clive Owen, visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, and Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Guy Williams. The presence of not one but two of the people responsible for the film's visual effects makes it clear the technology used to create it was every bit as important as the film's story and performances. And a great deal of the discussion during the press conference centered on the groundbreaking digital effects used in the movie.
In fact, Bruckheimer attributed the film's long gestation period to the fact that, "technology hadn’t caught up with the creativity of the writer. So we had to wait for [the visual effects supervisors] and Ang Lee to figure out how to get this movie made." Bruckheimer added, "We did some unsuccessful versions of this in testing and it looked pretty awful so we kind of put it on the shelf until Ang said 'I have a whole new way of doing this' and he said 'I'm going to create something really special.’ And he certainly did."
Gemini Man features a completely digitally-rendered human being in the character of Junior. The filmmakers captured Smith's performance as the character and then constructed a 23-year-old digital version of him, which is what audiences actually seen in the movie. Smith elaborated, "This is not me de-aged, it’s a 100 percent digital interpretation of me, it's a digital character. It's the first digital human."
In addition, Lee shot the film in 3D and at the rate of 120 frames per second (films are traditionally shot at 24 frames per second). As a result, the film is an innovative progression in the way movies are made.
Lee's digital approach to the film was so cutting-edge that he gave producers credit for supporting his vision. "You know some of the shots take a year," Lee explained. "Then while we’re shooting we have to turn [the footage] over before [producers] see anything."
And given how new the visual effects on the film are, there was no guarantee that they would work. Visual effects supervisor Westenhofer said that Lee came to him and asked if they could do for a human what they did for the tiger in Life of Pi. "So we looked and said technology's close enough that... we felt confident that we could do that."
Weta effects supervisor Williams added, "We’ve been toying around with digital humans a lot with stunt work but to really break this barrier what we needed was a project that supported it. The commitment to… truly have a digital human standing in front of camera acting and resonating with the audience. [Gemini Man] was the perfect opportunity to actually be able to bring it all together."
For Smith, the thing that made him believe in the promise of the technology was the way it captured "youthful eyes." Smith explained, "You can't fake innocence… As a young actor it's easier to play older but older it's difficult to impossible to play younger. Once you know some stuff it's in your eyes…. So the [special effects department's] job in creating a digital human was to be able to sell that innocence and that youth."
Yet, before the effects department could take over, Smith had to film the scenes as Junior. Owen discussed what it was like to shoot scenes with Smith while he was playing the youthful character. "A lot of the time I was acting with Will with this huge head rig on, which was for all the stuff they‘re going to do later," Owen revealed. "The truth of the matter is because [Smith]'s so focused and such a good actor all of that disappears very quickly."
Lee and Bruckheimer also discussed their decision to shoot the film at 120 frames per second. I think the goal is to bring a new experience to an audience," Bruckheimer said. "You know we haven't made huge technological advances in cinema for quite a while. [The high frame rate] is a huge jump as far as what an audience is going to experience. It's immersive. It puts you right in there with the actors. It takes a little while for you to get used to it because you're not used to seeing something with such clarity."
"It responds the way reality responds to your eye," Smith added. "And was the attempt to make [Gemini Man] a much more realistic experience so much so that… the actors couldn't wear make-up."
"To me it’s really about the sharpness," Lee said. "I think when you're doing 3D to allow people to be more immersed to mimic the experience [of] real life… it's [doesn't] just [have to be] clear, It [has to be] sharp."
It's the promise of the technology that the filmmakers hope draw audiences to the theater. The film isn't a sequel, prequel, reboot, or any of the other things that tend to be big box office draws these days. However, it boasts effects that can't be seen in any other movie. And its high frame rate can only be experienced in a movie theater. "We have to have technology that you can't actually see in your home to get people back to the theaters," Bruckheimer noted.
In fact, Smith felt that in today's movie-going world, Gemini Man is an underdog. "It's a whole lot safer from a financial standpoint to make a part three of something than it is to do something brand new from the ground up," Smith pointed out. "But that's what we were all excited about with this... And why to push the envelope [technologically] is to give people a new reason to go to movie theaters to see something that you can't see at home."
Gemini Man is directed by Ang Lee from a script written by David Benioff, Billy Ray and Darren Lemke. The film stars Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, and Benedict Wong.
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