Oscar winner Ang Lee wants to change the way we see movies. In 2012, he explored modern 3D techniques with the visually sumptuous Life of Pi. In 2016, with Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, he added high frame rate to his bag of tricks, freeing the image from its traditional quirks such as motion blur and judder to create an immersive look into war. With 2019’s Gemini Man, Lee has upped the ante further, shooting at 120hz and incorporating a digital doppelgänger acting side-by-side his human compatriot, both played by Will Smith.
It’s a bold move not always appreciated by audiences, particularly those raised on 24-frames per second for their entire lives. As someone excited about this experimentation, yet not always delighted with the results, it was a real thrill to speak with one of the artists responsible for bringing this new form of filmmaking to life.
Ben Gervais was the technical supervisor on Gemini Man. His credits include working with Scorsese on Hugo and with Guillermo Del Toro on Crimson Peak and Pacific Rim. One of the things that plagues 3D is 24hz judder, so the combination of HFR with stereoscopy (plus the extra luminance of dichroic laser projection) provides, at its best, the most impactful and immersive cinema experience possible. The question remains, however, whether that immersion is what’s required, or are we simply more hardwired to watch films with these myriad of technical flaws that we ascribe to being “cinematic”?
We spoke to Ben Gervais by phone as Gemini Man is released on home media in a 4K set that includes a high frame rate version but not, unfortunately, the 3D 24hz Blu-ray that was included in the Billy Lynn set.
The reception in North America of high frame rate has been mixed at best. Could you talk about the challenges of leading audiences into directions with which they may not be comfortable?
When Peter Jackson did The Hobbit in HFR he was incredibly brave, but it was almost exactly the wrong material to start with. It was all of this makeup and all of these fake sets and all of the fantasy world that he was creating, and you need a learning curve to get to that point. He kind of jumped into it.
The first ten minutes of Hobbit with the dragon attack are littered with trademark Jackson whip pans, which of course don’t work in HFR.
Well, and it’s not that they can’t work, it’s just that we haven’t learned how to do everything right yet. All of these people, including Academy Award-winning craftsmen, [need to essentially] go back to film school. You really have to go back and analyze, watch the dailies and go, ‘Oh, that trick that that worked my entire career doesn’t work anymore. How do we make that work now?’ I think you have to bring that sensibility, the idea that you’re going to have to relearn what you know into every facet of your work, even if it has nothing to do with the camera necessarily. It applies to the makeup people, and to the scenic artists, and it applies to the actors.
People don’t like change, even those clambering for something new. Has that frustrated you as both a creative and technical person?
I think the honoring for this type of technology is in developing markets. We’ve really seen a lot of audiences for example in China and Asia in general to be really enthusiastic about this, because they don’t have that sort of jaded cinema viewer type of outlook. With audiences in North America, we’re a little weary of always being sold something, always being told that this movie is revolutionary, and that product is game changing. Those words are starting to lose meaning for us. Yet we’re seeing, especially with at least younger people and younger audiences is that they grew up playing video games and they’ve tried VR, and they have maybe a little bit more of an open mind to what somebody like Ang is trying to achieve when he’s showing you different ways to view a movie. Movies have really been voyeuristic up until now, and this is a much more sort of a first-person thing. You can’t sort of sit back in your seat and be a passive viewer when you watch a film like this in a format that Ang is presenting. It puts you much closer to what’s going on, and sometimes a lot of movie audiences want this really sort of sit back and relax and just have, just watch something occur in front of you as opposed to a more visceral experience. But I think there’s also a developing market where people want a more visceral experience. They want to have their attention really sucked in to what’s going on and have an emotional participation in a movie in a way that’s different from what they’ve seen before.
With HFR, there’s nowhere to hide, which has to up everyone’s game. You talk about everyone going essentially back to film school, but because of that, especially with contemporary audience, we just start looking for the seams. We are paying attention to whether it’s a virtual Will Smith or a non-virtual Will Smith. Can you talk about not only speaking in these terms towards the CGI artists that helped bring the characters to life, but also the performers, of just letting them know to attenuate their own performances, to bring it down a little bit, because every micro expression is being expressed?
That’s really what Ang spent most of his time on with the actors: making the performance subtle but also complex. We talked a lot with the actors about things like not just the business they have in terms of the dialogue that they’re actually delivering at the time, but also, Ang would throw things at them like, ‘Oh, maybe you feel like the breakfast you had is not quite sitting well with you, or you’re worried about your taxes that are due next week,’ or you give them all of these things just like we have in real life, where you never can completely focus on. You’ve gotta always have these other thoughts going through your head to make you, when you’re viewing it in this format, to make you sort of seem alive. I mean, I’m talking to you, I don’t know what I’m going to say, my brain is formulating thoughts right before I say it. It’s unlike a rehearsed script where the actors have time to sit and think and rehearse it. What happens is that a little bit of the life is out of the performance that we don’t notice at 24 frames, but you definitely do at HFR. We try and give them little pieces of business to think about while they’re delivering their lines so that can help us out in terms of the animated CGI version. That’s really a puppet that’s driven by Will – we were able with the facial capture to capture a lot of that [business], but then sometimes the animators had to come in and do a little tweak here and there to kind of just ensure that that came across.
So, for the virtual Will, there’s both motion capture and key-frame animation?
Not key-frame so much as just sort of maybe emphasizing or dialing up the muscle movement that Will had when he gave the performance. Sometimes we need to sort of go somewhere between that, so there wasn’t too much key frame work done, it was really just sort of augmenting or toning down Will’s performance, depending on how it looked mapped onto Junior’s face.
Were stunts all done via motion capture?
For a lot of the stunts, there’d be a stunt player who we photographed with a whole bunch of dots on their face, but then also we’d get Will into mocap and we’d try and do a toned down version of that action so that he has the same body movements. We’d take his facial performance and would build either Junior or, in a lot of cases actually even old Will, in full CGI. We’d do a head replacement or sometimes a full body replacement, depending on if the stunt person was the right size and build, just to ensure that we’ve got everything that we need.
Peter Jackson attenuated the HFR between the first Hobbit and the second and third. He changed colour timing, he also added some interframe blurring for certain specific things, in order to more easily bridge between “raw” HFR and our expectations about what’s considered “cinematic”. Could you talk about that balance in this project?
We didn’t attenuate any of the HFR in Gemini Man, at least for the 120 version that we premiered and was at certain cinemas. For the 60 or 24 frame versions though, we have the ability to change the amount of motion blur in post-production. We had a powerful tool to make sure that we give people an experience that is as close as possible to what we did with the 120 version. We changed that per scene or sometimes per shot, to really sort of make sure that we’re giving audiences something that’s as true as possible to what we wanted them to see without changing every theatre in the world.
One of the big first CGI films that got everybody all excited was Jurassic Park, and its central philosophical question states that the creators were “so occupied about whether they could, they didn’t stop to ask if they should” make the radical changes. Does this resonate with some of the criticisms of moving away from traditional framerates in a cinema context?
I think filmmakers always need to be challenged. Yet in terms of the CGI and all of that, the HFR of it, it’s a tool like any other tool and we need to be cautious of how we use it.