We interview Gemini Man technical supervisor Ben Gervais about the ambitious nature of the project and the film’s various VFX advancements.
Ang Lee’s ambitious, dual Will Smith-billed production Gemini Man can very easily be viewed as a test run for the scale at which filmmakers can utilize digital technology. The film, which is now available on home video (4K Ultra HD/Blu-ray/Digital), is an espionage thriller that follows the exploits of a retired hitman (Smith). Screen Rant recently had the opportunity to speak with the film’s technical supervisor, Ben Gervais, about the ramifications of these developing technologies in terms of filmmaking and exhibition.
This is a very ambitious production. How would you describe the moviegoing experience you and Ang Lee sought to achieve?
Ben Gervais: I think what we were trying to show audiences is something that they haven't seen before. We want to pull people into an action movie and give them more of a first-person experience, rather than the standard cinema voyeuristic, third-person type of experience. What that means is that you feel like a part of the action: your heart races when you're a part of the action, but also when you're in the drama, you connect with the characters in a way that you necessarily haven't before.
With Gemini Man, there are clearly a lot of technological features at play in the film – another big appeal is the idea that there is a present-day Will Smith, as well as a Fresh Prince era Will Smith – were there ever any times during the shoot where one feature combated with the execution of the other?
Ben Gervais: Believe it or not, actually, no. We were worried about that and it was a big concern, but when we actually started to do it, we had feedback from the visual effects people saying that the high frame rate helped them. Humans are so good at looking at a human face; that's what our brains are designed to do above all other things. We try and look at people and figure out if they're good mates, or if they're lying to us, or if they're sick, or something like that. But what we're not good at is being articulate about what is wrong with a face when it looks wrong. And at 24 frames, if you have all the motion blur that's involved in a 24 frame film and you try to make this CGI junior, the problem you would run into is that you would know it looks wrong but you wouldn't be able to figure out why. Whereas [with the high frame rate], because the frames are so much sharper at their entry, you can see that the face looks correct and hold it up against a still frame of Will [to make sure]. So we found that it made a lot of [the visual effects] easier. From a technology standpoint, it was harder. But in getting the result we wanted, it actually made it easier.
I would think that with the higher frame, you would be more exposed and at risk if some of the effects looked dodgy. Was that something you were concerned about?
Ben Gervais: Yeah, absolutely! There's nowhere to hide. On the flip side, as much as we have these resources and this microscope that lets us get things right, if we don't get them right, then they're very obviously wrong. [laughs] So it's really a double-edged sword and we took a leap of faith because nobody's ever done this before. There have been movies here and there that used one CGI shot, but it was only at a certain angle or facial expression. It's never been done at the degree of Gemini Man, where the CGI beyond Will Smith is in hundreds of shots as a main character of the film.
I’m glad to hear it wasn’t as big of a problem as I would’ve thought it’d be. What would you say the biggest challenge was during the production then?
Ben Gervais: I think the technical images on their own were definitely big challenges, it's just that they didn't work in opposition of one another. The high frame rate, the 3D of it from a mechanical, shooting-on-a-set point of view, was very difficult. And it took a lot of resources. We had to spend a lot of time doing R&B and making new cameras and that sort of thing. Then the CGI junior was its own monumental challenge and fortunately, those things worked together instead of against each other because to make these shots with the junior in 4K at 120 fps with a 23-year-old Will Smith is a real feat.
In what ways do you think the technical aspects of a production inform or manipulate the story and the creative process?
Ben Gervais: Fundamentally, at the end of the day, it's not about the technology. It has to be about the experience that we want viewers to have. Ang is very adamant about that; Ang is not a technology person. We joke that Ang can barely operate his iPad; he doesn't know megapixels and retracing and things like that. He doesn't speak that language. He's really looking for how intimately we connect with the characters on the screen. And that's what should always wag the dog with this kind of experience in cinema. You don't want to make technology for technology's sake; you want to be able to help people connect in a different way with the story. And that's what the driving force was for all of us.
It’s funny to hear that you guys joke about Ang Lee not even being able manage an iPad because he seems to be such a champion for developing these new kinds of technologies.
Ben Gervais: Yeah, the first time he actually saw 120 3D when we were doing testing for Billy Lynn, he kind of gave me an "oh, shit" moment. Like he wanted to ignore it but it was such a compelling image that he felt he had to explore it. And the reason it was compelling was because we felt like it was the realization of digital cinema. Up until this point, we have used digital tools to mimic what the last hundred years of cinema has done. The past hundred years of cinema has had some great art, and Ang has made some of that great art. But when he saw this, he saw it as digital cinema becoming its own thing, separate from celluloid cinema. They're both great, but this is us finally not trying to mimic what we used to do and actually explore what the technology can provide for a filmmaker in terms of intimacy and immediacy in telling a story.
There have been a lot of debates recently over the aesthetics and qualifications of action films as cinema – which is an interesting stance to me for all the reasons you just explained, and because these films seem to be the ones revolutionizing the art form. Do you care to comment on your perspective on this debate?
Ben Gervais: I think that what every director, whether they're making a Marvel movie or a drama, is trying to achieve is to tell an interesting story to an audience. And they have different goals in doing that: sometimes, they're trying to affect social change; sometimes, they're trying to just provide entertainment. There's nothing necessarily wrong with either approach, which is where you get into "what is pure cinema" versus episodic TV brought to a big screen. Gemini Man straddles that line in a lot of ways. Ang is a very dramatic director and to him, there is just as much juice in the dialogue and the tension between the characters when they're not in an action scene as there is when they are shooting an action scene. So I think it's more of a spectrum. Maybe the dialogue recently has made it out to be that "these movies are in this category" and "these movies are in that category" and never the two shall meet. I don't think that's realistic. I think there's a big area of grey in between the two and it just depends on what the audience wants at any given time.
We did, of course, just enter a new decade and my neck hurts looking up at the technological possibilities of the next ten years. What do you consider to be the most vital piece of developing technology in terms of filmmaking?
Ben Gervais: In terms of filmmaking, I really think that we've already revolutionized audio with ATMOS. The picture hasn't come that long of a way. And I think we're going to see a lot better quality [in that department] over the next ten years, being introduced to the cinema in regards to not just the digital revolution, but to contrast, frame rate, and thinks like that. Things that really give you a wider pallet in terms of matching what your eyes see a lot closer. And that will open up opportunities for cinematography to develop as well.
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