Will Smith, Ang Lee Reveal Digital Human Secrets While Teasing New 'Gemini Man' Footage

Inventive Oscar-winning director Ang Lee showed off what might arguably be among the emotive and realistic CG humans ever created in Hollywood, during a press preview Tuesday that featured 20 minutes of clips from his upcoming sci-fi thriller Gemini Man. The film from Jerry Bruckheimer Films, Skydance and Paramount stars Will Smith as Henry, an elite assassin who is pursued by a younger clone of himself.

Performing against Henry is a fully CG 23-year-old Smith — known as "Junior" — that was created based on Smith’s performance using motion capture at Peter Jackson’s VFX house Weta Digital.

"Will is twice as expensive," Lee quipped during the presentation. He also discussed directing CG Smith's performance, saying "the biggest problem is Will is a much better actor today than he was 30 years ago."

Smith got a huge laugh when he elaborated, “Ang told me ‘I need to have you act less good,' and he would show me some of the old performances.... Weta pulled out all of this old footage so I got to see all the tragedies I committed in entertainment."

The filmmakers showed three clips from Gemini Man, followed by a soon-to-be-released trailer. The first clip features a chase that ends with the reveal of Junior. The second features a hand-to-hand fight between Smith’s Henry and Junior. The third is a dramatic dialogue sequence during which a tearful Junior confronts Clay Verris (Clive Owen), the villain who created the clone but was also a father figure who raised him.

"The VFX team has outdone themselves," Smith said emphasizing that this CG character was created through a different process compared with what is referred to as "de-aging" an actor with makeup and VFX.

Upping the difficulty level even further, Lee made Gemini Man in 3D and 4K at a high frame rate of 120 frames per second (fps). Tuesday’s presentation was screened in 3D at 60fps at today's more commonly used 2K resolution, using a Cinionic (Barco) laser projection system in the Paramount Theater.

"A lot of you have memories of what Will looked like on Fresh Prince," Bruckheimer said, adding "that is difficult [to re-create] just in 24fps. This is [made in] 120fps. So you see every little thing."

Digital human work is unforgiving, as we are all familiar with a human face. Said Lee, “people talk about technology but this is not. This is an artistic endeavor.… Not a clone but a soulful human being."

"My way of directing had to change. [The actor] can't act; you have to feel emotion that will translate to the audience. He has to be real, complicated." Lee praised Smith not just for his performance, but for his "courage and heart."

Production and VFX

Gemini Man was lensed by Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha), who shot the movie using new models of the lightweight ARRI Alexa M camera, modified by ARRI to photograph 120fps at 3.2K resolution, on a 3D rig.

The VFX work was led by production VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer (who won Academy Awards for The Golden Compass and Lee’s Life of Pi) and Weta VFX supervisor Guy Williams, a three-time Oscar nominee (The Avengers), who presented an overview of the VFX on Tuesday.

The pair explained that their work on the digital Smith began with gathering photos of the actor at a younger age. These references included the movies Bad Boys and Independence Day. They also photographed Smith and did a digital scan of his face and body. In arriving at the digital look, Williams said detailed research involved how skin moves and pores behave and capturing all of the emotion and nuance of the performance. "If anything isn't right, it falls apart."

For scenes during which Smith's Henry and Junior appear together, Smith performed on set as Henry, with a reference actor as Junior. Then he performance Junior's role on a mocap stage, with a reference actor playing Henry. The VFX team put everything together.

In scenes during which Henry and Junior are not both in the frame, the team sometimes photographed Smith on set wearing a facial capture system and then did face replacement on his body. Action sequences involved fully digital doubles or stunt performers with face replacement.

Adding to the challenge, Westenhofer reported that the film contains nearly 900 VFX shots, many of which are long takes to give the eye time to explore the 3D and high frame rates world. This format is data-intensive and one can't hide inconsistencies in the image. "High frame rates complicates everything," Westenhofer admits.

Theatrical Exhibition

Directors such as Lee and James Cameron are exploring the potential of employing frame rates higher than 24fps in movie production to take advantage of capabilities such as the ability to create a smoother 3D image and reduce judder. Cameron has said he would use high frame rates in the production of his Avatar sequels, though he hasn't elaborated on his approach. To make Gemini Man, Lee is using what he learned in helming his 2016 experimental film Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was made in 4K, 3D at 120fps. Though when the film opened, there were only a handful of theaters capable of showing the movie as it was intended.

With Gemini Man, the plans are to use various theatrical display options including standard 2D projection at 24fps. There also are select theater installations that could display another version of Gemini Man. For instance, some laser projection installations may show 3D at 60fps, and for the Dolby Vision format, the filmmakers are circling 3D at 120fps at 2K resolution.

Earlier this year, China's Huaxia Film Distribution, projector maker Christie and cinema tech firm GDC signed a deal aimed at developing a cinema system with the ability to produce and project movies at 120fps per eye, along with 4K, 3D, high dynamic range and immersive sound — what Lee and his team refer to as “the whole shebang.” The first projection systems of this joint development, which use Christie dual RGB laser projectors and GDC's new media servers, are scheduled to launch in August so there may be a small footprint of these screens installed in China, Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan in time to display the full format Gemini Man.

The film is slated to open Oct. 11 in North America.