Tag Archives: Will Smith

Director Ang Lee: Gemini Man and a digital clone

By Iain Blair

Filmmaker Ang Lee has always pushed the boundaries in cinema, both technically and creatively. His film Life of Pi, which he directed and produced, won four Academy Awards — for Best Direction, Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects and Best Original Score.

Lee’s Brokeback Mountain won three Academy Awards, including Best Direction, Best Adapted Screenplay and Best Original Score. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won four, including Best Foreign Language Film for Lee, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score and Best Art Direction/Set Decoration.

His latest, Paramount’s Gemini Man, is another innovative film, this time disguised as an action-thriller. It stars Will Smith in two roles — first, as Henry Brogan, a former Special Forces sniper-turned-assassin for a clandestine government organization; and second (with the assistance of ground-breaking visual effects) as “Junior,” a cloned younger version of himself with peerless fighting skills who is suddenly targeting him in a global chase. The chase takes them from the estuaries of Georgia to the streets of Cartagena and Budapest.

Rounding out the cast is Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Danny Zakarweski, a DIA agent sent to surveil Henry; Golden Globe Award-winner Clive Owen as Clay Verris, a former Marine officer now seeking to create his own personal military organization of elite soldiers; and Benedict Wong as Henry’s longtime friend, Baron.

Lee’s creative team included director of photography Dion Beebe (Memoirs of a Geisha, Chicago), production designer Guy Hendrix Dyas (Inception, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull), longtime editor Tim Squyres (Life of Pi and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) and composer Lorne Balfe (Mission: Impossible — Fallout, Terminator Genisys).

The groundbreaking visual effects were supervised by Bill Westenhofer, Academy Award-winner for Life of Pi as well as The Golden Compass, and Weta  Digital’s Guy Williams, an Oscar-nominee for The Avengers, Iron Man 3 and Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2.

Will Smith and Ang Lee on set

I recently talked to Lee — whose directing credits include Taking Woodstock, Hulk, Ride With the Devil, The Ice Storm and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk — about making the film, which has already generated a lot of awards talk about its cutting-edge technology, the workflow and his love of editing and post.

Hollywood’s been trying to make this for over two decades now, but the technology just wasn’t there before. Now it’s finally here!
It was such a great idea, if you can visualize it. When I was first approached about it by Jerry Bruckheimer and David Ellison, they said, “We need a movie star who’s been around a long time to play Henry, and it’s an action-thriller and he’s being chased by a clone of himself,” and I thought the whole clone idea was so fascinating. I think if you saw a young clone version of yourself, you wouldn’t see yourself as special anymore. It would be, “What am I?” That also brought up themes like nature versus nurture and how different two people with the same genes can be. Then the whole idea of what makes us human? So there was a lot going on, a lot of great ideas that intrigued me. How does aging work and affect you? How would you feel meeting a younger version of yourself? I knew right away it had to be a digital clone.

You certainly didn’t make it easy for yourself as you also decided to shoot it in 120fps at 4K and in 3D.
(Laughs) You’re right, but I’ve been experimenting with new technology for the past decade, and it all started with Life of Pi. That was my first taste of 3D, and for 3D you really need to shoot digitally because of the need for absolute precision and accuracy in synchronizing the two cameras and your eyes. And you need a higher frame rate to get rid of the strobing effect and any strangeness. Then when you go to 120 frames per second, the image becomes so clear and far smoother. It’s like a whole new kind of moviemaking, and that’s fascinating to me.

Did you shoot native 3D?
Yes, even though it’s still so clumsy, and not easy, but for me it’s also a learning process on the set which I enjoy.

Junior

There’s been a lot of talk about digital de-aging use, especially in Scorsese’s The Irishman. But you didn’t use that technique for Will’s younger self, right?
Right. I haven’t seen The Irishman so I don’t know exactly what they did, but this was a total CGI creation, and it’s a lead character where you need all the details and performance. Maybe the de-aging is fine for a quick flashback, but it’s very expensive to do, and it’s all done manually. This was also quite hard to do, and there are two parts to it: Scientifically, it’s quite mind-boggling, and our VFX supervisor Bill Westenhofer and his team worked so hard at it, along with the Weta team headed by VFX supervisor Guy Williams. So did Will. But then the hardest part is dealing with audiences’ impressions of Junior, as you know in the back of your mind that a young Will Smith doesn’t really exist. Creating a fully digital believable human being has been one of the hardest things to do in movies, but now we can.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Before we even started anything, as we didn’t have unlimited money, a big part of the budget went to doing a lot of tests, new equipment, R&D and so on, so we had to be very careful about planning everything. That’s the only way you can reduce costs in VFX. You have to be a good citizen and very disciplined. It was a two-year process, and you plan and shoot layer by layer, and you have to be very patient… then you start making the film in post.

I assume you did a lot of previz?
(Laughs) A whole lot, and not only for all the obvious action scenes. Even for the non-action stuff, we designed and made the cartoons and did previz and had endless meetings and scouted and measured and so on. It was a lot of effort.

How tough was the shoot?
It was very tough and very slow. My last three movies have been like this since the technology’s all so new, so it’s a learning process as you’re figuring it all out as you go. No matter how much you plan, new stuff comes up all the time and equipment fails. It feels very fragile and very vulnerable sometimes. And we only had a budget for a regular movie, so we could only shoot for 80 days, and we were on three continents and places like Budapest and Cartagena as well as around Savannah in the US. Then I insist on doing all the second unit stuff as well, apart from a few establishing shots and sunsets. I have to shoot everything, so we had to plan very carefully with the sound team as every shot is a big deal.

Where did you post?
All in New York. We rented space at Final Frame, and then later we were at Harbor. The thing is, no lab could process our data since it was so huge, so when we were based in Savannah we just built our own technology base and lab so we could process all our dailies and so on — and we bought all our servers, computers and all the equipment needed. It was all in-house, and our technical supervisor Ben Gervais oversaw it all. It was too difficult to take all that to Cartagena, but we took it all to Budapest and then set it all up later in New York for post.

Do you like the post process?
I like the first half, but then it’s all about previews, getting notes, changing things. That part is excruciating. Although I have to give a lot of credit to Paramount as they totally committed to all the VFX quite early and put the big money there before they even saw a cut so we had time to do them properly.

Junior

Talk about editing with Tim Squyres. How did that work?
We sent him dailies. When I’m shooting, I just want to live in my dreams, unless something alarms me, and he’ll let me know. Otherwise, I prefer to work separately. But on this one, since we had to turn over some shots while we were shooting, he came to the set in Budapest, and we’d start post already, which was new to me. Before, I always liked to cut separately.

What were the big editing challenges?
Trying to put all the complex parts together, dealing with the rhythm and pace, going from quiet moments to things like the motorcycle chase scenes and telling the story as effectively as we could —all the usual things. In this medium, everything is more critical visually.

All the VFX play a big role. How many were there?
Over 1,000, but then Junior alone is a huge visual effect in every scene he’s in. Weta did all of him and complained that they got the hardest and most expensive part. (Laughs) The other, easier stuff was spread out to several companies, including Scanline and Clear Angle.

Ang Lee and Iain Blair

Talk about the importance of sound and music.
We did the mix at Harbor on its new stage, and it’s always so important. This time we did something new. Typically, you do Atmos at the final mix and mix the music along with all the rest, but our music editor did an Atmos mix on all the music first and then brought it to us for the final mix. That was very special.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
It’s huge on a movie like this. We set up our own DI suite in-house at Final Frame with the latest FilmLight Baselight, which is amazing. Our colorist Marcy Robinson had trained on it, and it was a lot easier than on the last film. Dion came in a lot and they worked together, and then I’d come in. We did a lot of work, especially on all the night scenes, enhancing moonlight and various elements.

I think the film turned out really well and looks great. When you have the combination of these elements like 3D, digital cinematography, high frame rate and high resolution, you really get “new immersive cinema.” So for me, it’s a new and different way of telling stories and processing them in your head. The funny thing is, personally I’m a very low-tech person, but I’ve been really pursuing this for the last few years.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: Collateral Beauty director David Frankel

By Iain Blair

Oscar-winner David Frankel is probably best known for his enormously successful films The Devil Wears Prada and Marley & Me, but the writer/director has an eclectic slate of films under his belt, including The Big Year, Hope Springs and One Chance.

Frankel owns a “Best Short” Oscar for his film Dear Diary, an Emmy for his direction of the miniseries Band of Brothers, and an Emmy nom for the Entourage pilot. In addition, he directed several episodes of Sex and the City, and the miniseries From the Earth to the Moon.

David Frankel

Frankel’s new film, Collateral Beauty, is a drama about a successful New York advertising executive who suffers a great tragedy and retreats from life. While his concerned friends try desperately to reconnect with him, he seeks answers from the universe by writing letters to Love, Time and Death. But it’s not until his notes bring unexpected personal responses that he begins to understand how these constants interlock in a life fully lived, and how even the deepest loss can reveal moments of meaning and beauty.  Frankel assembled an all-star cast, including Will Smith, Edward Norton, Keira Knightley, Michael Peña, Kate Winslet and Helen Mirren..

The drama’s behind-the-scenes creative team included director of photography Maryse Alberti (Creed), editor Andrew Marcus (American Ultra) and composer Theodore Shapiro (Trumbo).

I spoke with Frankel about making the film.

There’s been a lot of mystery about this film and the plot?
Will plays this advertising guy who loses his six-year-old daughter to cancer and he spirals into a deep hole. He’s devastated, he’s divorced, he’s not functioning at work anymore, and everyone tries to help him reconnect, but nothing really works. Then they come up with this wacky scheme, which involves hiring some actors to help him answer the questions he’s asking of the universe. I saw it as this screwball drama — a little crazy — but also very grounded and emotional. There’s a lot of moving moments and tragedy, but I think it’s quite uplifting and hopeful.

useYou got an amazing cast. Any surprises with Will Smith?
He was everything I expected and more. He’s such a risk-taker and keeps challenging himself as an actor. He took on stuff here he’s never done before, and Jacob Latimore was very impressive, really able to hold his own with the others, and there was a very unlikely pairing of actors — Helen Mirren and Michael Peña — that was unexpected and which worked out so well.

You shot this on location all over New York. How tough was it?
People complain about it a lot, but I never do. We shot it in eight weeks. It was great and wherever you go, people would help decorate the streets with Christmas lights and the street vendors would come out, and neighbors would help keep the streets quiet while we shot, so there was all this enthusiasm and great support. And you can’t really fake New York, and I love the fact that wherever you point a camera, it looks amazing.

You shot digitally, but it has a very filmic look.
Right, and I really struggle to see the difference between film and digital now, because digital’s so good. Maryse did a great job. She shot Dear Diary for me 20 years ago, and we quickly picked up where we left off. The goal was to make some very beautiful images and focus on composition and the performances.

Do you enjoy the post process?
I love post because it’s the time of discovery. When you’re shooting, it’s a time of wonder — when you’re scratching your heads for weeks on end and trying to deal with the schedule and budget and all that. Once you’re in post, you finally sit down to start telling the story you want, and when you start solving the puzzles that are in front of you in the cutting room, it’s just so satisfying. We did all the post in New York, and all the cutting at The Post Factory in Tribeca, and then we did all the sound work at the Warner Bros. mixing stage. We also recorded the music and orchestra in New York, so it was very much a New York production.

Talk about working for the first time with editor Andrew Marcus. Was he on the set?
He was on set a lot, and he actually lived just down the street from one of the locations, so he’d stop by a lot and we’d discuss stuff every day. He was so enthusiastic right from the start, and I think he’s quite brilliant. The way I work with editors is to tell them at the wrap party, ‘Pretend I got hit by a bus on the way home and you have to now finish the movie. Don’t just do an assembly and string scenes together.’ The big challenge on this was getting the tone right, as it’s such a strange mix of humor and really heavy drama, and sometimes all in the same scene.

You shot in early spring, but there’s a lot of winter, so you must have needed some VFX?
Right. We used VFX to add some Christmas decorations, lights, some snow, and we had to do clean-up. Mr. X in New York did all that.

You’ve collaborated with composer Theodore Shapiro a lot. How important is sound and music to you?
It’s huge. I’ve worked with just one composer my whole career, and Ted wrote this beautiful score that’s perfect, because it’s such an emotional movie but it also needed a very restrained score that doesn’t tell you how to feel, and I had the most fun being in the studio with him and trying stuff out. And all the sound design is so crucial to it too —capturing the sounds of New York, the subway trains.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
We did the DI at Company 3 in Chelsea, with Tim Stipan, who’s a genius. He just did Silence with Scorsese and he has this fantastic eye for storytelling through color. I’m always involved with the DI, but even more so this time as Maryse had to go off to shoot Chappaquiddick, so I did a lot of the sessions with Tim, and it probably ended up a little warmer with me in there.

This is releasing at the same time as this new little film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Are you nervous?
No, not at all. It’s good counter-programming. The Devil Wears Prada opened against Superman and did great. I like to think people want choices.


Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.

The A-List: Suicide Squad director David Ayer

By Iain Blair

With his distinctive, anarchic, immersive style, director/producer/screenwriter David Ayer has always excelled at probing the murky depths of human behavior and blurring the lines between the bad guys and the good guys in such hardcore films as Training Day, Fury, Sabotage, Harsh Times and End of Watch. Now Ayer, whose credits include Street Kings, and the screenplays for U-571, The Fast and the Furious, Dark Blue and S.W.A.T., has made Suicide Squad, a blockbuster without the usual bluster, and a superhero movie without the usual heroes.

David Ayer

With an all-star cast that includes Will Smith, Jared Leto, Margot Robbie, Joel Kinnaman and Viola Davis, and based on the DC Comics anti-heroes, it tells the story of a rogues gallery of outcasts who are assembled into a team, equipped with the most powerful arsenal at the government’s disposal, and sent off on a mission to defeat an enigmatic entity.

Ayer’s behind-the-scenes stellar creative team included director of photography Roman Vasyanov, production designer Oliver Scholl, editor John Gilroy and visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen. The music is by composer Steven Price. The Warner Bros. film was released in 3D, 2D and in select IMAX 3D theaters.

I spoke with Ayer on the eve of its release about making Suicide Squad and why editing is like a wrestling match.

This is definitely not your usual superhero movie. What was the appeal of doing it, as there’re so many superhero films out there now? 
Great question. When I did Fury, it was all about historical accuracy and recreating WWII. With this, I wanted to try and create a fantasy world and give it this real and gritty feel that I like as a director, and bring that sensibility to a comic book movie and create multi-dimensional characters through casting amazing actors — and ground the fantastical as much as possible in reality.

What were the main technical challenges in pulling it all together?
In a lot of ways filmmaking is very mechanical, and all the processes are sort of an industrial process. So it was dealing with all the sets and set pieces, the sheer scale of it, and that becomes about logistics — building them, tearing them down, building new sets on the same stages, and how to move all these pieces around and keep your crews running smoothly. It was a massive undertaking.

How early on did you start integrating post and all the VFX?
Sony Imageworks’ Jerome Chen — who did the VFX on Fury, and the Spider-Man films as well as Beowulf and The Polar Express for Bob Zemeckis — came in right at the start. We did extremely complex CG characters in this, so we spent a lot of time figuring out how to go about doing it and what were the best techniques. It took a lot of time and work, and we also had to figure out all the computer time and the renderfarms we needed to generate the shots, so all the VFX were embedded in the shoot from day one. We set up witness cameras to record everything the crew did, we had constant telemetry and a ton of data gathering.

Did you do a lot of previs?
Quite a lot. Third Floor did them. It’s a very interesting technique, as for certain scenes you absolutely have to have it. You have to go in knowing efficiently where you’re going to have to drop that camera on the set, and there are a few scenes that almost exactly match the previs we did. But other times it’s not really an essential tool

You reunited with director of photography Roman Vasyanov, who shot Fury and End of Watch. How tough was the shoot?
We did most of the principal photography at Pinewood Toronto Studios, and it was a long and grueling shoot. I was very happy to get to post!

Do you like the post process?
I love post. You know you’re going to work every day, that’s for sure. We did it all on the lot at Warners. It’s always challenging because film isn’t logical, it’s emotional, and it comes together in strange ways. It’s never a linear journey, and you go down blind alleys and try to solve problems, and not every problem wants to yield its secrets.

Can you talk about working with editor John Gilroy, (Nightcrawler, Pacific Rim, The Bourne LegacyMichael Clayton). Was he on the set?
He set up editorial in Toronto so it was up and running from the beginning. He tried to keep up with the shoot as much as possible as we shot on film, so there’s the lag between photography and the dailies reaching editorial.

And you like to shoot, don’t you?
(Laughs) I do shoot a lot! Over 1.5 million feet of film on this — so it’s a lot of work just to watch it and keep the assembly up to date. Then we did the main editing back on the lot. I love editing even though it’s baffling and frustrating and wonderful, all at the same time. The challenge is always that you can make an infinite number of films out of the same footage, and whatever your ideas and dreams are going in, they’re going to be shattered along the way — because the movie wants to be what it wants to be, and you can only fight that so much. You’re wrestling every day to find the right film.

All the VFX play a big role. Talk about working on them with VFX supervisor Jerome Chen who did Fury for you.
We have this shorthand, and he knows my taste and how I think and what I’m going to want and how I’m going to want it. It’s a pretty seamless relationship, and he also has great ideas; he often surprises me. This was a huge job with thousands of VFX shots, and a lot of vendors, but the main ones were MPC and Sony Pictures Imageworks.

What was the hardest VFX sequence to do?
Anything with full CG characters is hard. It’s hard to shoot that and block it and hard to edit things you can’t see. You end up with this hodgepodge of previs and half-finished shots and slowly the finished VFX stuff gets dropped in.

Where did you do the DI and how important is it to you?
At Shed in Santa Monica, a fairly new company [which runs Baselight’s latest Generation VI system with more grading power]. We did the DI with colorist Yvan Lucas, who co-founded the company. He did Fury, but this was my first time at The Shed, and he did an amazing job. The film looks very beautiful. The DI is so important, and it’s almost my favorite part of post. I get in there and look at every shot. Yvan and Roman would do a pass and then I’d do one, and we’d keep passing the baton like that until we were all happy.

For me, it’s where the film really comes to life. After seeing it in dailies for so long, it’s such a pleasure to see it like this. We did everything from the overall look to saturation and contrast matching, and some re-composition now and again. We shot the film in a very precise way and composed shots very specifically, but the DI lets you do some re-comps if needed when you simply don’t have the time on the day of the shoot, especially with exterior stuff.

Did the film turn out the way you hoped?
It was mostly what I had envisioned, but the mechanics of how you get there and how to tell the best story were a bit different, and you can’t foresee that. It was a great experience, and I can safely say I learned more about filmmaking on this than on any other film I’ve done. It was a maturing as a filmmaker.

What’s next?
I’m doing Bright with Will Smith. We start shooting in the fall.

Will you do another superhero movie?
(Laughs) I’ll wait to see how the fans respond to this before I put my neck on the block again.

Industry insider Iain Blair has been interviewing the biggest directors in Hollywood and around the world for years. He is a regular contributor to Variety and has written for such outlets as Reuters, The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times and the Boston Globe.