Paramount on Tuesday debuted 20 minutes of dazzling high frame rate/3D footage and a new trailer from director Ang Lee’s sci-fi/actioner, “Gemini Man.” It was Will Smith fighting Will Smith, and it was a meta experience. The director improved his jarring “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk,” Smith continued his comeback with the most demanding performance of his career, and Weta Digital delivered its most fully convincing digital human with Junior, the younger version of Smith.
For Smith, who plays an aging assassin hunted by a 23-year-old clone of himself, it was an eerie experience doing double duty and he put total faith in Lee’s vision and confidence. “Looking at youth versus experience, the 20s sucked ass,” he said. “Maybe my 30s were better. Now I’m more comfortable in my own skin.”
For Lee, “Gemini Man” is all about attaining salvation through a strange second chance. The Oscar winner (“Life of Pi,” “Brokeback Mountain,” “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon”) has made a thinking person’s action movie about the human heart. “These are internal feelings of examining your life,” he said.
Lee told Smith, “I need you to act less good,” when playing the younger clone, Junior, and instructed the actor to look at previous performances such as “Bad Boys.” Conversely, when playing Henry, the older assassin, Lee said, ”I need you to be older, go to hair and makeup and be older.”
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Yet both Lee and Smith insisted that the VFX should not be classified as de-aging. “We are not de-aging,” Lee said. “I rather think that we are creating a new character, a youthful Will Smith. Which required Weta to up its facial animation game to meet the demands of “Gemini Man,” led by Oscar-winning production VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (“Life of Pi”) and Weta VFX supervisor Guy Williams.
Junior represents a major breakthrough in digital humans for Weta, appearing in more than half the movie, and required to express a range of emotions performed by Smith. “Our full methodology [involved] a combination of scenes where Will plays his younger self wearing appropriate costumes for his body and a motion capture head rig,” said Westenhofer. “These scenes are done ‘on set’ and cover all of the action where young and old versions are not on screen together.
“For scenes where both are playing against each other, we [had] a body double for the young character. Both he and Will [were] filmed together on set. The geometry of the set [was] recreated later in a motion capture volume where Will [performed] the young character over again. Given the tight coupling with head and body action, we [would] often need to fully replace the body double with a digital version, though there [were] times when we [salvaged] some of him and just [replaced] the head.”
“The degree of difficulty at 120 frames per second was much higher for a digital character,” added producer Jerry Bruckheimer, who spent decades developing the project. “It’s much sharper, every pore and detail, and in 3D.”
As if it wasn’t demanding enough for Smith going back and forth, Lee threw in the ultimate existential question: “Does a clone have a soul?” But shooting at 120 fps, you see everything, there’s nowhere to hide, there’s no cheating. You can’t even wear makeup.
Lee’s been on a mission to perfect the spectacle of high frame rate to help get audiences back into theaters. And this time he found the right vehicle for shooting 3D at 120 frames-per-second and 4k resolution (lensed by cinematographer Dion Beebe). The director thrillingly overcame the technical hurdles by offering in your face, hyper-real intensity, alternating between hard-hitting action (including a terrific fight scene in a cavern with skulls) and emotional intimacy (with Junior confronting his control-freak father played by Clive Owen).
“Junior is twice as expensive as Will Smith,” said Lee, underscoring the magnitude of creating the digital human. And it took a year to finalize the first shot of Junior until Lee was satisfied.
“He’s a CGI character like the lions in ‘The Lion King,'” said Smith. “Now there’s a completely digital 23 year-old-version of myself.”