Gemini Man may be a cautionary tale about cloning, but it’s also a testament to the collaborative process of filmmaking. Will Smith couldn’t be transformed into the 20-year-old Junior without incredible advancements in VFX, but the visual effects team needed his nuanced performances to accomplish their task. In honor of the film’s October 11 release, VFX supervisors Bill Westenhofer and Guy Williams sat down with Screen Rant to talk about their adventures in digitally cloning a superstar.
Guy, amazing job; beautiful. But I gotta ask: the script has been floating around for 22 years roughly, it went from different production companies, and you guys now have made Gemini Man. What was going to be the biggest challenge when you guys were like, “All right, we're gonna de-age Will Smith?”
Bill Westenhofer: It was trying to make a digital human look completely real. It's a lead character; it's not just a side character that’s on the screen for a minute or so. It's a lead character that's in your face, and with the way Ang shoots this, these are long sustained takes. The first time we see him, he's shirtless on a bed for two minutes. So, to have digital CG character hold up for that was a daunting challenge.
You also did the other side of that too, where you digitally had older Will, as well. Knowing that you were gonna have to do this throughout the whole movie had to be tough, right?
Bill Westenhofer: Sure. We can talk about the amazing thing, [that] to make young Will Smith, we had to make old Will Smith work. Which gave us the tool to do shots that you wouldn't be able to do otherwise. A lot of times when you're going to do a head replacement on a stunt man, they're doing everything they can to look away from the lens. It’s just their nature, and we're constantly telling them, “No, no! Look! Look right at the camera. That's what we want.”
I think the first time that we really started seeing that the de-aging technology was in Tron Legacy, I believe. It was good for its time. But then it just kept getting more advanced. What were some of the films that you knew had this technology, so that you guys can do this now?
Guy Williams: Yeah, leading up to this, there's a lot of great work that's been done. And we definitely try to look at everything that's been done up into this point, trying to glean whatever knowledge we can out of it.
It's not just about creating a digital human; it's about creating a compelling performance. To that end, we looked at a lot of movies that have done digital humans recently, like Rogue One and Blade Runner. We also looked at films that dealt a lot with performance, like the Planet of the Apes movies had just really believable performances in a character on frame.
So, it's not just as simple as bringing a human to frame. It's about making sure that when you have the human on frame, you care about his performance. And we felt relatively confident that we can achieve that. One of the things we said to Ang early on was that we can do our half; the other half has to be the director-actor relationship. Our digital creature will only ever be as good as the actor.
And then we showed up on set, we got the performances out of Will Smith, and then we looked at each other and were like –
Bill Westenhofer: “We better get that right.”
Guy Williams: “He did his job right, so now we gotta do our job.” So, that's what the challenge was.
Did Will have to wear a thing on his head for this?
Bill Westenhofer: He did, yeah.
Guy Williams: That’s the thing –
Bill Westenhofer: That's a head gear with the…
Guy Williams: Stereo camera pairs. It’s basically two high resolution infrared cameras that point back to us.
Bill Westenhofer: But we also captured his full body, too. So, what you're seeing is not just a head replacement; we're actually doing a full body replacement.
Because when you act, it's not just your head. Your body supports everything that you're saying and your emotions. And little things like breathing – if you see someone intake, and you don't feel that in the body, there's this disconnect. And there's this bobblehead thing. With digital humans, since we're all since birth experts – as creatures, we evolved for millions of years to be experts – any tiny thing that's wrong, we are instantly aware, and that's what throws you off.
Guy Williams: Everything about this movie was done with the mantra that performance is king. That if Will’s going to give us such a great performance, everything that we do behind the scenes has to carry that performance forward. That's why we replace the body. That's why we have all the witness cameras around set. That's why we do everything we can to make sure that the performance comes through, because that's what genuinely gives you the great result at the back end – a fantastic actor like Will Smith giving you such a great performance.
Bill Westenhofer: Our goal is to work ourselves out of recognition, really. We don't want you thinking about the visual effects and just enjoying Junior.
Junior was great; you guys did an amazing job. I can't wait to see what challenge you guys are going to accomplish next.