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.
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.
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.
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.
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.