In development for 12 years, Gemini Man presented visual effects artists with a definitive challenge: placing an actor 51-years-old in the same frame with his photorealistially 23-year-old self, but director Ang Lee was up for the task. “Not too long ago, I did the tiger in Life of Pi,” said Lee of an almost 100% computer-generated character, “so now I know a human face was within reach. You play with fire—it’s pretty scary. But, at the same time, it’s pretty exciting.”
For Gemini Man’s visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer, an Academy Award winner for Best Visual Effects for his work on Life of Pi, also being considered for a Visual Effects Society award for Gemini Man, the project came together in a fluid manner, based on his previous work with director Lee.
“When Ang first came to me,” Westenhofer recalled, “we talked about how we were going to do this. We talked about what had been done in the past, and what technology had been used. There had been some pretty close attempts with Rogue One [a fully digital Carrie Fisher] and Blade Runner [a fully digital Sean Young], and we thought it was very similar to what [Ang Lee] had done on Life of Pi. He said, ‘Can we do for a human what we did for the tiger?’
Coming seven years after Life of Pi, the production for Gemini Man relied on full-body performance capture and intensive facial capture methodologies to create 23-year-old Will Smith. “I said the tech is close enough that if we put the same determination in, we could do it,” Westenhofer recollected. “Honestly, if something doesn’t scare me a little bit, it’s not worth doing. So there was some fear involved, but the tech was far enough, and [with] some raw determination with the incredible people at Weta, we could do this.”
At Weta Digital in New Zealand, where performance and facial capture techniques had been used on myriad projects, including The Lord of the Rings trilogy, King Kong (2005), Avatar, and the recent Planet of the Apes trilogy, Gemini Man was a project endemic to the vendor’s pipeline.
“We’ve been toying around with digital humans a lot with stunt work,” said Weta Digital visual effects supervisor Guy Williams, also nominated for a VES Award for Gemini Man. “To really break this barrier, we needed a project that supported it: the commitment not just to have a few shots of a guy falling off a building, but truly have a digital human standing in front of the camera, acting and resonating with the audience, delivering the lines and serving the story. This film was perfect to be able to bring it all together.”
As opposed to the de-aging digital techniques utilized in The Irishman to make the main actors appear younger than their screen selves, in Gemini Man, at all times, 23-year-old Will Smith is a wholly digital character. “It’s a 100% digital interpretation,” Smith revealed. “It’s the first digital human [throughout an entire film]. It’s actually a spectacular thing to make people feel emotions in that way.”
Significantly, Westenhofer, Williams, and Lee looked to Smith to deliver the performance of his 23-year-old self during principal photography on the film. “Capturing the youthful eyes, that was the thing for me,” Smith stated. “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; it’s in your cells. You walk different; it’s in your back. Their job in creating a digital human was to be able to sell that innocence and that youth.”
On set, Smith played two characters: first, Henry Brogan, and, then, Junior. “It was grueling for him to do, play two parts every day that those two were on screen together,” Westenhofer described. “We can make it look like his 23-year-old self, but the innocence had to come from him.”
In Lee’s case, he noted that he drew inspiration from his visual effects collaborators. “We work with everyone’s imagination,” the director divulged. “The designs they did were mind-boggling: the study of aging and how our emotions connect with every tissue in our body. But that was 10 percent of the work. When everything is absolutely right, it’s not really believable because it’s too correct. So to mess it up, in that situation, it was an expensive process.”
When Lee was preparing the film, he called up bits from Smith’s earlier work in film and television. “He grabbed scenes and was walking me through moments, when he said, ‘I love very much what you have done in this moment, but don’t do this,’” Smith revealed. “We create a language of my old characters and the moments he was trying to capture—we found these really honest moments in my early work. That was the most difficult part—it almost felt like going back to bad acting. There’s some honesty before you actually learn where the light is, and you learn how to stand, and learn what makes people clap for movie stars. Letting go of all that stuff was really difficult. I’m really excited about the use of this technology in the future.”