Digital technology is cinema’s newest frontier, and director Ang Lee has been its most steadfast trailblazer. While Lee’s most recent filmography all use a heavy dose of visual effects, Gemini Man is at its core a digitally rendered film, even by Lee’s track record.
Gemini Man stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin with a conscience, who isn’t given the chance to retire once he is pursued by a young operative who in every way, is his identical. The film is by two-time Academy Award-winning Director Ang Lee and produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, David Ellison, Dana Goldberg and Don Granger. It also stars are Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, and Benedict Wong.
At the recent TechCrunch hosted talk in San Francisco, Lee and Actor Will Smith talked about the possibilities of using digital technology in Hollywood films.
“I started all this 20 years ago with Hulk. I think that was the first time anybody tried a full digital human,” Lee said. “Years ago I did the Tiger in Life of Pi. And I know doing a digital human in the back of our heads, we don’t want to believe it, we want to challenge it. I think it’s time, it’s within reach, but no one has proven it can be done.”
It’s going to take more than mere imagination to convince audiences of a young Will Smith, decades de-aged. For the first time, a fully digital character makes its way on screen.
“It is the first ever digital human. It’s actually a 100 percent digital character,” Smith said.
Junior, a twenty-something clone of Smith, was composed with technical, and even scientific, bearings. But what Lee didn’t anticipate were the challenges humanistically.
“The studies they do into aging is mind boggling, every cell, how emotion works, what time does to you,” Lee said. “But when you get all this right, that’s just 10 percent of the work. The other 90 percent you scratch your head.”
The head scratching becomes less exasperating when you have such directorial instinct as Lee and the performative chops of Smith. At times, Lee’s approach to directing means cold, hard preparation, and meticulously so.
“Ang looked through my entire filmography and he created takes of things. What we were able to do is create a dialogue, create a language,” Smith said. “In that process, I saw the depth of what [Lee] was trying to do, to try and make a digital character communicate a brief moment of uncertainty, but to do it with binary code.”
What Smith found as he reviewed old tape was a youth that had been forgotten.
“There was almost an unrecognizable quality to my 23 or 24-year-old self,” Smith said in a statement. “There was a freedom and a recklessness to my early Fresh Prince, Bad Boys, Independence Day and Men in Black days. That was one of the things I was trying to go back and recapture, to get a sense of the thought patterns that led me to some of the behavior that I had at that time.”
It certainly helps to have an actor of Smith’s caliber, who along with his emotive expertise, carries along inherently a certain intangible attraction.
“Why does [Smith] get paid the big bucks for so long? Will Smith’s charm. Why does he do something and people laugh at him? Why is he menacing but you still want to feed him chicken soup?” Lee said. “What is that secret? Is it the corner or his eye or the raise of an eyebrow? We just kept trying until you just feel that.”
That ‘feel,’ accrued over decades of filmmaking experience, is what Lee in most other times is directing towards. Lee directs with the intention of realizing aesthetically all the measures of the human condition.
“Ang is completely and almost exclusively focused on the human experience,” Smith added in a statement. “He uses technology to try to augment the ideas. He’s trying to figure out how the use of that technology has a corresponding vibration in the human soul.”
Lee’s know-how in controlling these vibrations with storytelling and technology is the pioneer spirit that began decades ago, and still continues to fascinate him today. It’s not just his familiarity with digital technology, but also his willingness to grapple with the risks that come with innovation.
“Others seem to punish high frame rate, sharpness. But at the same time, you have more to work with,” Lee said. “It’s a double edged sword. On one hand it’s intimidating, but on the other hand, you have so much more to gain. It’s scary but it’s exciting.”
The power of digital technology makes the entirely computer-generated Junior appear nearly indistinguishable from the real Will Smith. From dynamic action sequences to demonstrative close ups, Junior looks and feels life-like. Nevertheless, Lee wonders about the balance between truth and art.
“When you’re that close to life, how do you create art?” Lee asked.
For Lee, the answer lies in thoughtful storytelling that uses digital technology purposefully. It’s simply a means to a spectacular cinematic end.
New digital technologies unlock another degree of verisimilitude, as film takes a step forward in nearing the truth of everyday life. And yet, the very same technology can also bend our realities and show us visually the limits of our creative capacities.
“Technology helps us to visualize what we want to see,” Lee said in a statement. “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.”
With a story like Gemini Man and visual effects that are on the cutting edge of digital media, Smith believes that it can change the way audiences come to consume film altogether.
“Let’s give people a reason to go to a movie theatre where you can see and experience something that is different from your television at home,” Smith said. “It’s the revitalization and elevating of the cinema going experience.”
Lee is a bit more temperate in his regard of future artistic endeavors that include digital technologies.
“I believe this is a new media worth grabbing, and that’s digital. Give us some time, we’ll get there.”
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Gemini Man opens in theaters worldwide beginning October 11, 2019.
Ryan Leon Chen is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco covering culture and media.