fetaured Gemini Man

Interview: Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais on the Technology Behind ‘Gemini Man’

January 15, 2020Ben MK

Best known for films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi, Ang Lee is a filmmaker who prefers to set the trends, rather than to follow them — a trait clearly evident in his latest, the sci-fi action thriller Gemini Man. In it, Will Smith stars as Henry Brogan, an elite assassin who must do battle with his own worst enemy, a clone of his 23-year-old self. But rather than employ the de-aging techniques seemingly used so widely by Hollywood these days, Lee chose to create Henry's clone, Junior, completely using CGI — all while shooting the movie in high frame rate 4K, as well as in 3D.

I caught up with Technical Supervisor Ben Gervais to talk about the groundbreaking technology behind Gemini Man and the challenges involved, and to find out more about what it was like working with Ang Lee and Will Smith.

Can you tell me about what it was like working with such an innovative and cutting edge filmmaker as Ang Lee? This is your second time collaborating with him, the first being Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk.

Gervais: Working with Ang, for somebody who does what I do, is a really interesting experience. He's really not a technology guy, so he gave the people who worked under him a lot of freedom to come up with their own solutions, to bring their best to the film. He's not a micromanager, he's a hands-off type of person. So he's really good at just giving you some guidelines, like, "Oh, I want it to look like this," or "Oh, I want to achieve this," and leaving you to your own devices, really. And then you go back to him for his feedback and you can iterate, which is pretty amazing. He's also really this gentle, soft-spirited person, so you feel like you're talking to a friend that is a boss in a lot of ways, which is really rewarding.

As Technical Supervisor on Gemini Man, what exactly did your role entail?

Gervais: My job is to supervise pretty much the use of all the technology, all the way from the budgeting process through production — in terms of cameras we use, the lensing, the 3D rigs and all that kind of stuff — and then also into the post-production workflow, and even the exhibition of the movie. Because we shot it in high frame rate and we used a lot of new equipment and workflows and software, my job was really to design those systems, hire the crews that run them, and then make sure that everything works seamlessly, from all the way in the beginning to when people watch the film.

Not only are you shooting in 4K, 120 frames per second and 3D, but you also have a full CG recreation of a young Will Smith to deal with. What kind of challenges did that combination present?

Gervais: Oh boy, that's a big question. [laughs] There were quite of number of challenges. Obviously, it costs a significant amount of money, and working with this giant visual effects team — Bill Westenhofer and the guys at Weta — takes extra time. [For] a shot that has Junior in it, in addition to all the extra lighting that's needed for the high frame rate and the 3D, we've also gotta do multiple passes of the same shot. So once we have a performance that we like, then they have to stop and we do a performance with a stand-in, and then we stop and we do a performance without the stand-in, and then we do passes without any of the actors in it. So that takes some extra time on-set.

And then also, because of the high frame rate [and] the 3D, you see so much more. We can't get away with blurring things to make them work, we have to really get those details right in post-production. Be they parts of Junior or any of the other visual effects work. We really gotta spend a lot of time trying to make this as perfect as humanly possible, because if we make a mistake you'll see it on the screen.

Speaking of Will Smith, he obviously brought a lot to his roles as both Henry and Junior. What was it like working with him?

Gervais: Will is a craftsman. He really puts all of his energy into the movies he makes. You have his full attention at all times; he's not trying to do a million different things. I don't think a lot of actors could have pulled it off, because he's basically in every scene of the movie. He was really generous with his time; he's a really warm human being. The presence that you see on-screen was, in a lot of ways, the same as Will in real life. There's that charisma and that warmth. He's really a craft-focused actor, so he spent a lot of time working on the Junior performance and on the Henry performance. We really couldn't have asked for a better person to play that role, because it took so much energy to be on-set so much of the time, compared to an actor that's playing one role in a film.

Was there one scene in the film in particular that really stands out for you, whether it be because of Will's performance, or a challenge that had to be overcome, or because it was especially fun to work on?

Gervais: Picking one is actually pretty tough. One that sticks out to me, for sure, is between Junior and [Clive Owen's character] Verris in Verris' office, where [Junior's] confronting [him] about the fact that he's a clone. The emotion that Will was able to put into that performance was really remarkable, and I think we got pretty much all of that [in one take]. Just being on-set for the performance was incredible, and then also turning him into Junior and reproducing all of that from his performance was really something that Weta had to move mountains to do. It worked out really well, and it really comes through in the performance that you actually end up seeing on the screen with Junior, which is a pretty big achievement.

Of course, none of what we see on-screen would be possible without the state-of-the-art technology involved. So where do you see all of this technology headed, in terms of the future of filmmaking?

Gervais: I think there's a desire on the part of some audiences to have a more first-person, immersive experience. Cinema has really been about voyeurism, but I think there's room to also have a different kind of experience. And that's what Ang believes as well, if you can bring people more into the room, make them a first-person participant in the experience of watching a movie. And I think that high frame rate does that, 3D does that. I also think that a lot of especially younger audiences are more used to the look of that, because they've grown up playing video games at 60 fps and they've tried out VR and things like that. I think there's opportunity here for us to make a hybrid of the two, where we're giving audiences a more visceral experience that involves them in the story in some way, a little more than a standard film [would].

Last but not least, what kind of advice would you give to someone looking to get into your industry?

Gervais: I think the best advice I could give is that you have to really love what you're doing. If you're not sure, obviously try things, but it's really about being dedicated and also being honest with yourself. And always working for the movie. Just like in any big organization or industry, there could be a lot of politics, there could be a lot of other things. But I think the thing that people should really take away is that they have to keep their eye on the prize. I ask myself over the course of a movie, probably thousands of times, "What is the right thing for the movie?" Not what is the right thing for me or what makes my life easiest or what makes someone else's life easiest, but what is the right choice — whether we're making creative decisions or technical decisions — that best serves the story that we're trying to shoot?

Gemini Man is now available on 4K, Blu-ray, DVD & Digital HD.

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