Find out why it took 20 years to bring ‘Gemini Man’ to the big screen and what makes it like nothing you’ve seen before.
In 1996, mankind achieved a scientific breakthrough with the birth of a sheep named Dolly, the first successful clone of a mammal. With what had once been thought science fiction becoming a reality, producer Jerry Bruckheimer began to develop a high concept thriller that would require its leading man to play both a 50 year old assassin as well as his 23 year old clone. Originally set up at Disney, ‘Gemini Man’ had just one major obstacle in moving off of the printed page: visual effects technology wasn’t quite ready.
“I loved the concept,” explains Bruckheimer. “It was unique, fresh and different. It was not something I had seen before, and I always look forward to making movies that are different in the marketplace.”
“We spent a year and a half on such testing with some of the best visual effects artists in the business,” adds executive producer Chad Oman. “But it just didn’t work…the technology still wasn’t there to create a fully believable, one hundred percent, photo real leading character in a film.”
That’s why the road to ‘Gemini Man’ has spanned nearly two decades and why audiences will be treated to a level of cinematic spectacle that just hasn’t been possible to deliver before now.
“The creation of is not de-aging,” Bruckheimer continues. “This is a one hundred percent digital human character as portrayed by Will Smith. And for this, our Oscar-winning visual effects supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team of artists, including Weta Digital, had to punch through the envelope and navigate their way out of the uncanny valley.”
Top tier effects can still mean very little, however, if you don’t have the right talent bringing the story together. That’s why, in seeking a helmer for ‘Gemini Man,’ producers looked to Academy Award winner Ang Lee who, took home his second Oscar for his work on 2012’s ‘Life of Pi’. Among that film’s many technical achievements was a photo real tiger, seamlessly integrated into every scene.
“Ang is a master visual storyteller who can immerse you in an epic tale,” says producer David Ellison, “but still crafts characters you can identify and truly fall in love with – and he does it while pushing the boundaries of what’s possible in cinema, which I really admire. I had wanted to work with him for many years, so when Jerry first brought up the idea of Gemini Man to me, I immediately thought of Ang… [I] knew that if we could assemble the right creative team, we could do justice to this incredible story.”
“There were a few things about the project that really got to me,” says Lee. “The concept of a man facing a version of himself in an action thriller, in kind of an existential environment, is a very attractive idea. I think a person facing his younger self, or the younger self facing his future—when they face that conflict and negotiate through each other’s character, what they’re going to learn from each, what the conflict could be—is existential. Not only how a man can look back on his life and see what could be corrected, what could be done better, not only reflecting on one’s life, but all the other
issues. It’s a fascinating, very provocative idea.”
Not only did the casting of Will Smith provide ‘Gemini Man’ with a talented actor and movie star for both of its leading roles, it allows audiences to recognize how precisely the younger Smith looks and acts like the Will Smith of yesteryear.
“I had to go back and look at old film and old tape of myself,” the star explains. “There was almost an unrecognizable quality to my 23 or 24-year-old self when I went back. There was a freedom, and a recklessness to my early ‘Fresh Prince,’ ‘Bad Boys,’ ‘Independence Day’ and ‘Men in Black’ days. There was a creative recklessness that at I admire, and that was one of the things I was trying to go back and recapture to get a sense of what were the thought patterns that led me to some of the behavior that I had at that time. It was fun to explore and to seek.”
“I think Will is a terrific actor and a big movie star,” says Lee. “He’s funny and can do action. I couldn’t ask for a better movie star and actor to perform these two roles, as both Henry and Junior. We all know about the younger Will, the swaggering, humorous, root-for-him kind of character. And the more mature, thoughtful Will of today. We will see how the two of them conflict and work together with each other in this film. Will is more than just one of the biggest movie stars in the world. He’s a brilliant and versatile actor who has entertained audiences for decades. Part of the fun of the ‘Gemini Man’ concept is the opportunity to experience not only the actor you love now, but also the one you loved 25 years ago. There are really only a few out there who could pull off such complicated roles within the same picture, and Will was our first choice.”
Although there was a learning curve in playing his younger self, Smith quickly got a handle on it. Going the other way, the star admits, would have been a much trickier problem.
“I couldn’t have done it the other way,” he says. “I couldn’t have, at 23 years old, played a 50-year-old version of my character with this technology. But this way, I was able to understand and capture both characters because of the amount of experience I’ve had as an actor. What’s really great now in my life, more than ever, is that I’m paying attention to things a lot more than I ever did. And now that I’m starting to reflect a little more, a film like this opens up so many different ideas and concepts… [As] I was playing these characters, there’s a certain power to naivete. There’s a serious power to not knowing you can’t do something, and I really bumped into that in playing these characters. The deficiencies of both, and the strengths of both, was an interesting exploration.”
Fortunately for Smith, Lee was interested not only in achieving something extraordinary with technology, but in using that technology to craft the ultimate double performance.
“Ang is completely and almost exclusively focused on the human experience,” says Smith, “So everything in the technology, and everything in the creation of the characters, he has an opinion about that experience that he’s trying to share. And as he uses technology to try to augment the ideas, he’s only trying to figure out how the specific use of that technology has a corresponding vibration in the human soul. So, as an actor it’s great to be with that kind of visionary artist, because you can get hamstrung by technology sometimes. You can get trapped, and you get forced into performing false moments, to cater to the needs of a technological necessity, but Ang is firm in not allowing that to happen.”
“I hope that audiences like the experience,” said Lee. “Not just enjoying a movie, a story, watching movie stars, being entertained or even to be inspired by this existential story. I hope with this media and our efforts, the audience takes away an extraordinary experience. To engage in a theatrical experience in a new way. It’s immersive. You’re participating in a story rather than watching somebody else’s story. I hope I earn their
trust and that they feel like they’re inside of our story.”
Film in 3D, 4K and at 120 frames per second, ‘Gemini Man’ is changing the way movies are made.
“Persistence of vision” is the term given to the phenomenon in our heads that makes movies possible. Even though characters seemingly come to life on the big screen, the effect is really an optical illusion. In a normal movie, 24 frames are displayed every second and our brains connect them together as a single, fluid take. With ‘Gemini Man’, however, director Ang Lee is delivering a film that offers five times as many images every single second, telling the story of an assassin pitted against his younger clone in 120 fps.
“Technology helps us to visualize what we want to see,” the director explains. “I think that visual effects can be visual art, which we use to tell a story and to visualize what is abstract. You make the impossible visual. You preserve what’s in our imagination. Because movies are photorealistic by nature, digital cinema is more real, immersive, dimensional, our two eyes looking at it as much as we look at life. I think any media, certainly movies, are always progressing. I think taking people to a new world, a new possibility, a new existence, is exciting. ‘Gemini Man’ has an exciting story to tell, but first we had to create a digital world, a movie world, to make that story possible.”
“Ang has faith in the power of this medium to tell visual stories as a heightened viewing experience,” adds director of photography Dion Beebe. “You throw out everything you thought you knew and start again. It’s like storytelling in virtual reality. Ang would be the first to admit that he’s learning and searching every day and trying to better understand and utilize it. This is certainly one of the hardest films I’ve worked on, but it demands that an audience sit up and pay attention.”
It’s hard to put into words exactly what the 120 fps experience offers on an emotional level, but the basic effect is a level of clarity several steps beyond standard cinema. That’s particularly impressive for a film that relies on a central visual effect because it means that the visual effects on the younger clone will be up against a truly unprecedented level of visual scrutiny.
“When we met Ang, he said we have to go as explorers and be pioneers of a new aesthetic,” recalls 3D supervisor Demetri Portelli. “Ultimately, we have to serve a good story that people enjoy, and not to call attention to itself.”
“Leveraging 120 fps gave us important information that ultimately allowed us to create the most believable Junior possible,” explains producer David Ellison. “It’s something that’s never been done before and I know audiences will respond when they see it on the big screen. Selfishly, I just love going to the movies, and for the theatrical experience to thrive, we have to continue pushing the boundaries of what’s possible to draw the broadest global audience.”
“There are several specific elements which define this new medium,” says technical supervisor Ben Gervais. “The first is 3D, which itself demands digital capture because of the precision and accuracy of synchronizing the two cameras/eyes, which is the second element. When we see movies screened in 3D, our minds want to believe that the images in front of us are real, not a picture on a wall. This changes the viewer’s mindset, and as we become more aware of everything in the image, one of the first things we notice is a blurred, strobing effect. This effect, called judder, is much less noticeable in 2D, and in fact has become part of the 2D filmmaking aesthetic over time. As we watch the same effect in 3D, it becomes intolerable, and the way to mitigate it is through the third element: higher frame rate. At 60 frames per second, the strobe effect is nearly gone and the image becomes watchable. At 120 frames per second, the image becomes remarkably clear, and to achieve an unprecedented level of clarity, fine detail and the proper level of light, we use 3.2K resolution, projecting the images at a brightness of 28 foot lamberts per eye, through 3D glasses, which is four times brighter than the best 3D theatres available now, and eight times brighter than a standard 3D theatre.”
“Your brain starts to treat what you’re watching as something more real and intimate,” Ellison continues. “You’re not a third person viewer… you’re IN the story. Ang has one of the most intense respects for the history of film. He’s not rejecting what’s come before - what he wants audiences to do is to embrace something new.”
‘Gemini Man’ isn’t using 120fps as a gimmick, however. It is the hope of everyone involved in the production that Lee’s cinematic experiment helps pave the wave for future releases that will, in turn, push the boundaries of what is currently possible.
“Audiences have come to accept images which don’t look quite right for the last 100 years,” Gervais continues. “What Ang does is to look at images always from the character and performance point of view. He’s always interested in connecting with the person he’s looking at on screen, and how connects with that person. If there’s too much motion blur, it distracts from that. The only solution is to add more frames Getting us to the 120 frames per second realm with the resolution that Ang likes in 4K and 3D means that your brain is starting to treat the film as something more real and intimate… In an action movie like ‘Gemini Man,’ we can take the audience on a roller coaster ride with this technology that they’ve never experienced before. So how do we make it engaging in a different way? You immerse the audience in the story, make them feel that they’re there, and make it visceral and bring them closer to the characters.”
“The technology is so spectacular that it penetrates you emotionally,” says leading man Will Smith. “As far as I know, this is the first time it’s ever been done in this way, a one hundred percent CGI human… It’s definitely going to change how movies are made and how movies are seen. Ang is really pushing the limits of how people consume this type of entertainment. He’s pushing really hard to give people an experience in the movie theatre that they can’t get anywhere else.”