A movie set in a computer game world, as Ryan Reynolds’ Free Guy is, with its main environment of Free City, obviously requires a lot of visual effects work by a number of different houses. One of the primary houses working on Free Guy is Digital Domain, who has also contributed to Marvel Studios’ Loki and Black Widow this past summer.
Bob White was one of Digital Domain’s CG Supervisors, working under the studio’s main VFX Supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis. One of the main scenes he worked on in the movie was the one where Reynolds’ Guy is being chased by the avatars operated by two Soonami programmers, Keys and Mouser, who are trying to eradicate a player who seems to have taken control of a non-player character (NPC) i.e. Guy.
Last week, Below the Line got on Google Meet with White to talk about his role in making Free Guy, not just talking about that scene, which features an amazing shifting and evolving landscape around Guy while he’s being chased, but also the opening single-shot that introduces us to Free City.
Below the Line: I know you’ve been working in visual effects for a while, but how long have you been at Digital Domain and what were you doing before that?
Bob White: I’ve been CG suping for nine-ish years, and the last two and a half years at DD. Although, a year ago now, I actually transitioned out of CG suping into what we call department supe roles; I am now the Head of Department for the lighting team here at DD.
BTL: What’s the difference between CG supervisor and VFX supervisor, are they just different names for the same role?
White: No, no, they’re drastically different roles. The VFX supervisor oversees the whole show and makes sure that everything coming in and going out ends up being client-friendly and everything that the client likes to see. CG Supervisor is in charge of just making sure that everything we do computer-generated wise is at the top of our level, and that we are able to get everything as polished and clean as we can. So from intake through asset work through lighting and effects work, we oversee all that stuff and make sure that the VFX supe, who’s got eyes on the upper level of all that stuff, is getting what they need.
BTL: I assumed that everything done at Digital Domain was some sort of CG, was I wrong?
White: I mean, technically, yes, I guess. We do a lot of compositing work as well, and so the CG supe oversees everything up to comp level and then comp takes over, and then they polish everything and make sure that it’s all nested into the plate appropriately.
BTL: Did you go to school before you got into VFX work?
White: Yeah, so I went to VFS [aka Vancouver Film School], and I worked at VFS 20 years ago– in 2001, I was back at VFS–and then I worked as a generalist around town in all the different houses in Vancouver, basically, mostly different houses in Vancouver, before finally settling at DD, and it’s hopefully my long-term home.
BTL: What was your entry into Free Guy? Who brought you on? Was it Nikos who was the main VFX supervisor there?
White: Every production kind of runs their own setup. So on this one, it was Crys Forsyth-Smith, and Nikos [Kalaitzidis] that were the studio heads. Crys was the producer and Nikos was the VFX supe, so when they brought me on. It was probably halfway through production to help with one of the main sequences that we did, which was the construction site.
BTL: A lot of what you were doing on Free Guy was creating Free City, so was that the first thing you’re dealing with, and did you work with the Production Designer Ethan Tobman on that?
White: By the time we got going, I never actually touched base with Ethan at all. By the time I came onto the show, we were just working with his concepts and things like that that had been passed through to us by that point. I know that he worked with Swen and Nikos and helped get that stuff up and rolling, but by the time we were going, it was a little more open, and Swen guided a lot of that.
BTL: Had they already been shooting on location in Boston?
White: Yeah, so Nikos went on set for a bunch of the shoots that they did, and it’s always interesting when we have a production that’s running, and we’re active on something, and then we send our VFX supe to go to set, and then they come back with all these extra nuggets of information that are super-critical and help everybody just make it nest together.
BTL: So it’s going concurrently. You were working while they were shooting, and then there’s probably more in post afterwards, but you were already building stuff and figuring stuff out.
White: Our previs team was running full force in LA, to try to help make sure that the sequences were getting set up appropriately and to help make sure that the production can shoot what they needed to shoot to get us what we needed.
BTL: What was involved with creating Free City. You had some designs. Did you have some photos from locations or plates from locations?
White: We had photos and designs, and they had done all the previs work already. We actually ingested the previs city that they had used and modified all the textures and looked at it to make sure that it all fit nicely. We actually ended up down-resing a bunch of stuff to make it feel a little bit more gamey. There were times where we would render something and it would look like a real environment, and it was a little too polished, so we’d have to kind of downrez it a little bit to make it feel a little more gamey.
BTL: Is it obvious when you watch the movie what part of it is done with visual effects? I assume they were shooting on a couple streets on location as well as the town square, but is there a certain height where everything else is being created with VFX?
White: There’s two main sections that we recreated the city for. We did the gameplay Free City work, which all had to be down res-ed,but we also did the full street. You see it the most in the Badass one-er opening shot; he’s the character that’s flying in the beginning of the film. We follow him through town as he jumps and lands in a car and then drives around with the helicopter chasing him. I think there were 11 plates that we stitched together, and we had to render a seamless CG environment to fill in the gaps in between. We had to use chunks of that to wipe out real buildings and replace [them] with CG ones, to make it transition cleanly between different shots. Sometimes, we had to adjust it so the window would be in a slightly different position or things like that. Sometimes, it’s easier just to render a new building that fits there. In a lot of those shots, it’s not actually super-easy to tell what’s CG and what’s not. Our main comper on that shot, Khari Anthony, he did an incredible amount of work blending everything across for such a long shot.
BTL: I’m definitely due for another viewing of the movie since a lot happens in it, and it’s been about four week since I’ve seen it.
White: That whole intro sequence, it was all one shot where it’s Badass flying down, and then he flies between the two buildings and then down into the street and then parachutes and then cuts his chute loose and lands in the car with the attractive woman and then the camera pans around them. They actually added a cut in there, but as we were working on it, it was all just one big seamless shot. They added a cut where he shifts gears, and then when he drives away, and that was all Attila Szalma. [He] CG suped that whole sequence, because it was such a crazy amount of city and shots that needed to be blended seamlessly together, using chunks of plate. We come around Badass at the beginning of that, and his face is the actor’s face, but the rest of it, including his body, his neck, everything is all CG replacement. It’s an incredible amount of work that went into that single shot, and it’s just a great way to jump in.
BTL: Was that also one of the first shots you were working on?
White: So that was a massive chunk of what we worked on for a long time. Attila Szalma worked on that sequence in particular — it was his baby — and he CG suped and guided that section, and then Dave Cunningham was one of our other CG supes. He oversaw all of the asset work and the multiplayer lounge when they’re doing the video recording playback, and all the gameplay footage, and then, my main sequence was the construction site sequence where Guy is running from Keys and Mouser up through the building.
BTL: Let’s talk about the construction site scene, since that’s obviously so impressive they put it in the trailer, and it’s really amazing visually. What was involved with that? It seems like a lot of stuff including work on a stage, and I’m not sure if that’s Ryan or his stuntman or a digital double.
White: They actually did more on-set than I was expecting them to do. They shot a bunch of foreground elements, so it is actually Ryan walking by a post in the foreground. But so much of it ended up being replaced, because we had to build the entire building. Lighting-wise, it was a really heavy asset, because it was all indirect lighting coming in from the outside, so it was a little bit crazy, and it was just super asset intense. Everything in the scene was a real asset that had been lookdeved and set up cleanly. Once we brought them in, it became pretty straightforward. We did a layout of the building, and then all the shots of Ryan walking through it worked great. Then we ended up setting up a photoreal digidouble version of him that was unbelievable. Brent Elliot is our head of Look Dev, and he did the Look Dev turntables for Ryan. At one point, I was looking at a turntable, and I couldn’t tell if I was looking at photography, or if I was looking at a render. It really nested in perfectly, and Nick Cosmi, our texture lead, got an ICT scan for that stuff that came in really clean. So, once Nick got his hands on those textures and made them sing, then Brent just went in and set up this beautiful Look Dev, and when we were working with it, it just dropped into place. Every time we lit it, it just was great.
BTL: Sorry, I don’t know that term — Look Dev?
White: Yeah, that’s setting up the shaders and taking the textures and making sure that the surfaces all respond appropriately, making sure that things are shiny where they’re supposed to be shiny and flat where they’re supposed to be flat, and that you get the proper amount of light bouncing through them as they move.
BTL: Do you ultimately work with the overall cinematographer on the movie to make sure your shots fit in with what he’s filming on location and stage?
White: That usually happens with Swen [Gillberg]. He works with those guys and makes sure that all of that stuff happens. Swen was [what] we would refer to as the client-side VFX Supervisor, so he is also working with all the other amazing facilities that are working on the show, because shows like this are so big that everybody gets a portion. Obviously, some other studios did some amazing work for this show, but it’s Swen that typically works with the cinematographer and then relays all that back to us.
BTL: This is my first interview with Digital Domain, but this summer, I’ve been admiring all the amazing VFX work, and staying until the very end to see all the houses and individuals responsible, so I know it’s never a one-man or house show.
White: It’s a lot of people when you look at the listings for each studio… I’ve seen Free Guy a couple of times. I went out with my in-laws, and then I went and saw it with my parents. I had to sit through the credits, because they want to see the kid’s name come up. Sitting through those credits, it’s insane the number of artists that work on a show, and it’s really shocking from working on the show internally. I know all those people. I know them all, I’ve worked with them all on multiple shows, and then to see them all lumped into one big list, it’s like, “Oh, yeah, I guess that was 250 people that worked on it.”
BTL: When did you actually finish this? I know this was supposed to come out last year but did you end up doing any of the work during the pandemic or was it finished and delivered before the first lockdown?
White: It was kind of nice, because it was the first thing we did any delivery of during pandemic time. It was about this time last year, I think, that we kind of wrapped everything up or maybe it was earlier than this — it was in June maybe. But, when we wrapped it up, we were working from home, and it was really nice, because those crunch hours at the end of any delivery, you’re always going to end up a little bit smooshed up against the end. It was really nice to be able to have dinner with my family, and then, come back and work until the wee hours of the morning, but be at home and be around when family time was needed — it was great.
BTL: All the time you save driving to and from work, that’s got to be at least an hour every day.
White: There are perks and there are drawbacks. I have children, so working from home is always a little bit chaotic, but other times, it’s amazing. Thankfully, I’ve got a door that I can close to my office. The thing that I really miss about working from the office is the theater. Being able to review things at full size is the one thing that I really wish we can get back and do more often.
BTL: So no one at Digital Domain has returned to working at the office or is it just a small group of people?
White: People have started returning as they need to or want to. We have a few people that work in-facility, but the vast majority of people, no, we’re still working from home. It’s still pretty open, and Montreal still has stronger restrictions than a lot of places. Honestly, the work this year, every studio is experiencing the same thing, because last year there was a kind of a scary period where nobody was sure how anything was gonna get shot. And then, this year, everything is, “Hey, let’s make all those movies that we didn’t make last year… and the ones we were going to make this year and maybe a couple of streaming shows on top,” and so everything is a little crazy. So we’ve actually grown so much that we wouldn’t probably fit back in our facility.
BTL: Glad to see you have a lot of work. I do want to ask you about virtual production, since it’s something I’ve been asking a few VFX people. Where does Digital Domain fall on the use of LED screens to project CG backgrounds on set? Are you guys doing that at all?
White: We actually just wrapped up our first couple of shots for a Warner Brothers production. We’re in production on the entire show, but we did a bunch of virtual production, like the Mandalorian-style environment where it’s just an LED volume they’ve got the characters in, and they blow a fan on the character, and the background is just an animated version of our set panning past. It’s mind-blowing seeing your work in real-time, and to be able to actually have them interact live with it, watching somebody walk through your render is unbelievable.
BTL: I know it’s a bit more pre-production intensive, since you have to do all the CG before they begin filming, but do you think you’ll end up doing more in post with those shots?
White: It’s a good question, actually, bu I’m ntot 100% sure yet. We haven’t actually started work on those jobs. They literally just wrapped the film on that show a couple of weeks ago, so we won’t actually start those shots until probably October. We’re in heavy pre-production for that now and did some trailer work for it. But in the meantime, I’m expecting that we will probably have to do some heavy augmentation to the backgrounds as well, but hopefully, there’s a couple of shots, at least, that it just is the background.
All photos courtesy Digital Domain. (Click on images for larger versions.)