Ang Lee’s new film Gemini Man is the ultimate gamble. Not because of the story. Not because of the stars. And not because of the subject matter. It’s because it’ll ask audiences to do something they’ve never done before. To believe that a fully CGI human being is real.
Fully CG characters are nothing new. They’ve been around since 1985's Young Sherlock Holmes. But that was a stained glass window.
Twenty years ago, CG made animal-like creatures such as Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace and Gollum in The Lord of the Rings.
James Cameron’s Avatar took that to a new level with facial performance capture and, in recent years, that technology helped graft human features onto characters, such as Professor Hulk in Avengers: Endgame or Caesar in the Planet of the Apes films.
But no one has gone all the way with it and actually tried to create an exact human for an entire movie. There’s good reason, too.
“This has been a goal of visual effects for a long time,” Gemini Man VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer told a group of journalists on the Paramount lot in Los Angeles this week.
“The reason that it’s hard is that every single one of us are [face] experts and that’s evolved over millions of years. The face is how we look at someone and tell that they’re lying to you or that there’s an illness and the subtleties of what tells you that are subconscious.
“So, for us to go in and try to recreate that digitally is really hard and takes all the science, and the great performance as well, to really pull that off.”
Older actors playing their younger selves is becoming rather common these days, but none of those movies have done what Gemini Man is doing.
Think about Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia in Rogue One if you don’t know what he’s talking about.
“No matter how hard you imagine it is, it is still harder than you can imagine,” Lee added. “The familiarity we have [with] a human face is the most of all things we recognise.”
In Gemini Man, an assassin named Henry is being hunted down by a younger clone of himself, referred to as Junior. The script had been floating around Hollywood for decades but no one wanted to make it with two different actors. Most thought it would somehow have to be the same person for it to really work, and technology hadn’t been able to pull that off until recently.
That challenge excited the tech-savvy, Oscar-winning director, but he knew he couldn’t just rely on what audiences had already seen.
“It’s not de-ageing,” said Smith, referring to a technique that’s become popular in recent years. “The younger character is not me. That is a 100 per cent digital character. A completely recreated character.
“They didn’t take my image and just stretch some of the lines. It is a completely CGI character in the same way that the lions in The Lion King are CGI characters.”
But that isn’t to say Junior isn’t performance-driven. On the contrary. During principal photography, Smith mainly shot the Henry side of things. That was easy. He’s playing a character that looks like he does now. Opposite Smith, in the role of Junior, was an actor named Victor Hugo (not that one) who gave Smith someone to play off of (like Orphan Black did for its entire run).
Once that was done, Smith spent several weeks shooting the Junior stuff wearing a body suit and facial camera on a performance capture stage, with Hugo now standing in for Henry.
Long before any of that started, the team at Weta was already working hard on building the assets to make Junior.
They started off by gathering a ton of references from when Smith was about the age Junior was. They grabbed images and footage from The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Bad Boys, Independence Day and even some Men in Black, though they realised Smith had started ageing a bit past what they were looking for by that time.
The team was glad to have all of that reference material — but, because it was so readily available, it posed another challenge: Almost every single one of us knows exactly what the actor looked like in those movies. So they would have to be extra careful to nail the look, otherwise it would be very, very obvious.
How did they do that? Well, it’s all in the details. The team at Weta built the digital Junior down to the pore level. They literally let the computer map out every single pore on Junior’s face on top of the bone structure, veins and so on.
They figured out how blood flows below your face. Mimicked muscle movements. Thought about the amount of water in your eye at any given moment. All of it. It’s all in the computer and all adjustable by animators so that Junior looks exactly like Smith’s performance captured on camera by Lee and his team. Maybe even better.
As you’d expect though, that level of control and detail means time. The team at Weta has been working on Gemini Man for almost two years.
And while the film “only” has about 900 visual effects shots in the film (most big movies have well over 1000, sometimes 2000), the team explained that some of Lee’s shots are much, much longer than a normal movie. One shot, in particular, is an unbroken, two and a half minute take running about 14,000 frames.
“That shot, if you were to break it down to being a 2K 24 frames per second movie, is more visual effects than most movies’ run length,” said Guy Williams, Weta VFX supervisor.
Oh, right. On top of all that, Lee is making Gemini Man in 4K, 120 frames per second 3D. Most movies are 2K, 24 frames per second 2D. That means ridiculous amounts of data, which results in computers running slower, and a level of detail that doesn’t allow for mistakes.
“You have to understand there is no motion blur,” said producer Jerry Bruckheimer. “When you see an action sequence in 24 frames there is motion blur. This is real. What you’re looking at is real life. And it takes you a few minutes to get into it [but], once you’re into it, it’s immersive.”
In other words, for the visual effects team, “There’s nowhere to hide,” added Williams.
Whether or not Lee and his team at Weta will achieve their goal of perfectly recreating a human remains to be seen. Gemini Man is still several months away from release and work continues. But Lee does not think — if the film does successfully prove creating a totally CGI human is possible — that human actors are in any real danger of becoming obsolete.
“Junior in the movie is twice as expensive as Will Smith,” said Lee. “I dare anybody to try. It’s so hard. It’s like impossible. Will Smith is easy. Tell him this and that and he’ll act. And then, when we do Junior, it’s a poor imitation of God’s work. That’s how hard it is. It’s pretty impossible.”
If they succeed, though, Gemini Man could end up being a landmark in film history.
“The technology Ang has created and worked with all these wonderful artists is something that will be part of his legacy,” said Bruckheimer. “This is kind of a leap from going from black and white into colour. That is how revolutionary this is.”
Gemini Man opens October 10.