Gemini Man – When A Story Challenges The Boundaries Of Technology

By any Hollywood standards, Gemini Man underwent an unusually long gestation period of nearly two decades before it would finally go before the cameras. The story idea was strikingly original and presented no end of possibilities for development into a fascinating and highly original thriller…an aging assassin is suddenly pursued by a younger, even more lethal antagonist who turns out to be…himself…at half his current age. The problem was the concept would have to wait for technology to catch up to the point where it could believably be transformed into a feature film.

The concept tells of a veteran ex-Special Forces sniper turned assassin for a clandestine government organization; and, with the assistance of ground-breaking visual effects, as Junior, the mysterious younger operative with peerless fighting skills who is suddenly targeting him in a global chase.

“The concept of Gemini Man,” says Will Smith, “with two characters played by one person across generations, the technology didn’t exist until today to be able to deliver this in a timely way. So it’s really the first time that the vision of the film was technologically able to be realized.”

“The creation of Junior,” says producer Jerry Bruckheimer, “is not de-aging. 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.“

For Smith, “I think that the technology in this case is a part of what creates the authenticity. People have played younger characters in a movie where they make the hair all grey and you make the person older, and then you make them younger, and that is an interesting approach, and acting-wise, it’s spectacular to be able to do that. But this technology allows you to see something that is shocking, and jarring, and beautiful, and technologically exquisite.” And playing both roles allowed the actor to reflect on himself at his age now, and who he was as a younger man. “One of the emotional benefits is the connection to mistakes,” he says. “We all have fears, and it’s almost like when you speak to your child, that connective tissue has emotion in it of itself. So, I think that the one person playing both roles gives you an opportunity to see to the core of the other characters in a way you generally don’t.”

It is directed by Oscar-winning director Ang Lee (Life of Pi, Brokeback Mountain , Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), from a screenplay crafted by David Beniof, who won five Emmy Awards as executive producer and/or writer of the now iconic HBO series Game of Thrones, Billy Ray, who directed and wrote the feature films Shattered Glass, Breach and The Secret in Their Eyes, and Darren Lemke, who directed and wrote the thriller feature film Lost in 2004.

David Benioff was born in New York City, and graduated from Dartmouth College. He studied Irish literature at Trinity College Dublin, and then joined the creative writing program at the University of California Irvine, receiving a Master of Fine Arts degree. Benioff’s first novel, 25th Hour, was published in 2001, and became a successful film three years later under director Spike Lee, with the author writing the screenplay himself. His short story collection When the Nines Roll Over (and Other Stories) was published in 2004, the same year Benioff wrote the screenplay for the epic Troy. He wrote the scripts for two films directed by Marc Forster, Stay and The Kite Runner, followed by X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Brothers. Benioff’s third novel, City of Thieves, was published in 2008.

Billy Ray was nominated for multiple honors, including an Academy Award, BAFTA Award and Broadcast Film Critics Association Award, for his screenplay for Captain Phillips, directed by Paul Greengrass and starring Tom Hanks. Ray was raised in Encino, California, and counts Color of Night, Volcano, Hart’s War, Suspect Zero, Flightplan, State of Play, The Hunger Games and Overlord among his screenplays, as well as creating and writing multiple episodes of the television series Earth 2. Ray directed and wrote the feature films Shattered Glass, Breach and The Secret in Their Eyes. For television, Ray also developed and wrote the adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Last Tycoon. Most recently, Ray wrote the screenplay of the highly anticipated Terminator: Dark Fate.

Darren Lemke attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan to study screenwriting. He directed and wrote the thriller feature film Lost in 2004, followed by co-writing Shrek Forever After, Jack the Giant Slayer, Turbo, Goosebumps, Shazam!, and the story for Goosebumps 2: Haunted Halloween. Lemke also wrote the television movies Flashpoint and Winter Dragon.

Gemini Man was originally set up at Disney and throughout its development phase, the screenplay attracted some of Hollywood’s top screenwriting talent, including Christopher Wilkinson and Stephen J. Rivele, Jonathan Hensleigh and Andrew Niccol.

Rejecting the use of makeup to either age up or age down the protagonist to effectively portray either his older or younger self, the studio explored options of creating a fully digital character as the younger version of the central character. In the early 2000s, Disney began a series of tests to see whether this was possible, and the conclusion was…not yet.

As the development process continued, the various, complex themes tackled in the film came to the fore – Nature vs. Nurture, what makes a human, the universal questions surrounding mortality – and needed to be integrated into what became an edge-of-your-seat, inherently cinematic story. The master of this kind of filmmaking, Jerry Bruckheimer, responded to these elements and agreed to assume producer reins in 2006. “I loved the concept,” recalls 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.”

Meanwhile, more visual effects testing was being done to see if advances could finally allow the creation of a believable digital character. “We spent a year and a half on such testing with some of the best visual effects artists in the business,” says 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.”

In October 2016, Bruckheimer found a willing and able partner in David Ellison from Skydance Media. Together, Bruckheimer and Ellison found a director with the creative vision and determination to, if necessary, invent not only new technologies to finally bring Gemini Man to life, but also how audiences experience a motion picture.

“I love how the Gemini Man screenplay explores the dynamic between youthful ambition and hard-earned experience,” says Ellison. “And I knew that if we could assemble the right creative team, we could do justice to this incredible story.”

Enter two-time Academy Award winner Ang Lee who had worked in a wide range of genres, infusing them with an artful balance of humanism and cinematic innovation. Lee immediately perceived the more complex aspects of the story, as well as its ability to entertain.

“Ang is a master visual storyteller who can immerse you in an epic tale,” notes 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 was developing something and I passed through L.A.,” recalls Lee. “I knew that David had been wanting to talk to me for a couple of months. I heard David’s passionate pitch of an assassin meeting his younger self.”
Lee continues, “There were a few things about the project that really got to me. 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.”

“However, you don’t want to get heavy-handed, we still want to entertain a broader audience,” continues the filmmaker. “It’s an action movie, so the audience needs to get the thrilling and amusing parts of the movie. So the tone of Gemini Man is quite tricky. I want drama and I want levity, and I’ve got to have some kind of a wicked sense of humor to blend the two together.”

During months of active pre-production – casting the other roles in the film, assembling the team of top-notch behind-the-scenes artists – there was also a huge amount of ongoing research and development to create a landmark photoreal all-digital main human character for the first time. There was also the added layer of Ang Lee’s decision to shoot Gemini Man in 120 frames per second as opposed to the usual 24, as well as in 4K resolution and in 3D, creating a fully immersive experience for the audience, even those watching in theatres not fully equipped to project the film in those formats.

Says Ang Lee: “Technology helps us to visualize what we want to see. 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.”

“Leveraging 120 fps gave us important information that ultimately allowed us to create the most believable Junior possible,” says 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. I’m really excited about what we have achieved on Gemini Man because, as amazing as the incredible technological advancements are, they’re all in service of the story. Only someone as innovative and thoughtful as Ang Lee could envision how to use this technology so subtly and so seamlessly, while letting Will Smith’s performance and the narrative take center stage.”

“Ang is completely and almost exclusively focused on the human experience,” notes Will 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.”

Says the film’s Technical Supervisor, Ben Gervais, “There are several specific elements which define this new medium. 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. Audiences have come to accept images which don’t look quite right for the last 100 years. 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. You’re not a third person viewer, you’re IN the story.”

“Since we have reduced or removed all of these previous limitations,” says Ang Lee, “we now need a new kind of moviemaking. The combination of these elements: 3D, digital cinematography, high frame rate, high resolution and increased brightness becomes ‘new immersive cinema.’ Because of the rich level of detail we gather, we are able to more directly read into characters through high frame rate.”

Gervais points out that Ang Lee’s interest in this incredibly advanced technology is at the service of story and character. “Your brain starts to treat what you’re watching as something more real and intimate. 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” Adds 3D supervisor Demetri Portelli, “When we met Ang, he said we have to go as explorers and be pioneers of a new aesthetic. Ultimately, we have to serve a good story that people enjoy, and not to call attention to itself.”

“In an action movie like Gemini Man,” says Gervais, “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.”

Says Gemini Man director of photography Dion Beebe, “Ang has faith in the power of this medium to tell visual stories as a heightened viewing experience. 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 definitely going to change how movies are made and how movies are seen,” says Will Smith. “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.”

Finally, after its long journey through the wilderness of development, experimentation, and roadblocks, Gemini Man is ready for the big screen. The intention was to create a film which works on its own terms as a gripping and suspenseful international thriller with science-fiction elements, but also with carefully integrated philosophical elements of what it means—and what it takes—to be, or to become, a human being.