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With Gemini Man, Ang Lee may just have rewritten how movies are made — and watched

By Jordan Zakarin
Gemini Man

It took two decades to make it to the big screen, and as the credits rolled on the inaugural screening of Gemini Man, it was clear that the movie — or at least not director Ang Lee's version of it — couldn't have happened a moment sooner.

Lee has been on the forefront of cinematic progress over the last 30 years, either driving forward or bringing to mainstream cinemagoers new methods of combat (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), visual effects (Life of Pi), and camera technology (Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk). Gemini Man represents a synthesis of all those advancements, a career culmination that he hopes is just the beginning for both him and the film industry. He is a deep advocate for digital cinema because he believes it can change the medium or even spin off into some new kind of visual art form, putting audiences inside a world in ways that open infinite new possibilities for storytellers.

"People think 3D and anything high-tech is the opposite of art and soul — I don't buy that," Lee told a handful of reporters at a lunch in Manhattan after the movie's inaugural screening. And Gemini Man should be seen in theaters, in 3D — a rarity in an industry flooded with wonky conversions that happen after the fact.

Gemini Man stars Will Smith as Henry Brogan, a retiring corporate assassin who gets caught up in a conspiracy that puts the target on his own back. His assassination has been ordered by his old Marine Corps commander (Clive Owen), now the mega-rich, megalomaniacal CEO of an advanced military contractor firm. Here's where it gets twisted, and the film technology comes in to play: Owen's character, Clay Verris, has been secretly raising a clone made from Henry's DNA, and he sends Junior, the perfect killer, in to take down the older Henry.

Much of the pre-release focus has been on Weta's breathtaking digital rendering of a young Will Smith — a full from-scratch creation, not a de-aging — but Lee's technological advancements are clear long before the midway point at which Junior enters the movie.

Lee shot Gemini Man at 120 frames per second (normal movies are shot at a comparatively glacial 24fps) and with a 3D camera, and both tools fundamentally changed parts of his approach to planning, shooting, and editing scenes. From the very first shot, on a coastal horizon, the difference is obvious — shot with any other camera, the background would be flat, almost like a painting, but with 3D cameras and the frame rate, the dimensions are clear, and you can feel the distance between different things on the screen, as if you could reach out and grab them.

That's because the 3D provides a different Z-axis for the cinematographer, which means that depth can be captured. This isn't the kind of gimmicky 3D you find at a theme park show, where it feels as if a dinosaur might pop out at you — Lee isn't trying to shock, but immerse. It's most clear during fight and chase scenes, when you understand the depth between objects and feel like you're in the middle of the action.

Gunshots and explosions are less cinematic and more visceral, because there's so little artifice; forcing everyone to watch enough scenes like that might take the abstraction out of the gun control debate and scare people into backing a ban on assault weapons again.

Lee says they had to light, block, and shoot fight scenes in very different ways, both to adjust to the technology and to take full advantage.

"Given the real illusion of 3D, you can actually put things outside of the frame which is psychologically your space, so I think if I put something in your face, that's just more intense and it feels like you're doing something yourself," Lee explained to SYFY WIRE at the lunch's powwow. "So it includes both over-the-shoulder and point-of-view shots, in a language that we never really get. We have over-the-shoulder shots, but the staging is different.

"Within the frame is third-person to me, and this is first-person to me, so you really have that kind of movement, so I don't think you need to cut as much to direct how people see it," he continued. "You're in the movie, watching somebody, getting hit at [yourself]. It's just a different experience."

Gemini Man Will Smith Ang Lee

The other part of the equation was the 120 frames per second, which provided Lee the opportunity — and, again, the challenge — of a much more information-starved camera. On Billy Lynn, they learned that they had to change entirely the way they lit their shots, because the camera took in so much more light. They shot a battle sequence in Billy Lynn under natural lights, in broiling Morocco, but this time around, they used as many artificial lights as possible.

The sheer detail caught by the 120fps also meant that they required far fewer camera and editing tricks to suggest kinetic action.

"Just imagine if you're involved in a fight or at close range, watching somebody really fighting in that corner, without strobe, with two eyes coming to an angle when your mind is sharper, you go deeper," he said. "How do you want to stage it? So you don't just use speed to pump adrenaline, and horizontally you actually get to see detail and get involved that way to feel the excitement."

Lee, who brought Wuxia films to the mass American public, asked his actors and stuntmen to engage in what he calls "messy fighting," a highly technical name for throwing down with less rehearsed choreography.

"We rehearsed with stuntmen for a long time, and I tried to change their habits, and I hurt them quite a bit, bloody noses but for real," Lee said. "We did that instead of what everybody uses when making movies, which is dancing, choreography. You count the number, you make the same wah hah hah noise, so you can hear each other and save an accident. And we broke the rhythm up."

The harder contact was rendered in CGI (the bloody noses were not meant to make it on screen), and the bigger stunts were done with more traditional techniques, given the size of the movie and cast he was dealing with. He was already asking enough of his actors, who were required to feed the data-starved 3D, high-speed camera in ways that far exceed their normal gigs.

"[With these cameras] you read through people," Lee said. "They cannot fake it — they have to fake it different, rather. They have to upgrade their skills, really have to get a visceral feeling and every take, I have to hit them with different thoughts to distract them so they can react to something, so they look alive instead of performing well. They have to be a lot more genuine, a lot more complex. I think it's a wonderful world, when you do the digital face and a body study. It's like a microscopic study of what drama is. What movement, what emotion, how to make contact with emotion, what triggers things and what age does to you, cell by cell."

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The digital recreation of a younger Smith is entirely convincing about 95 percent of the time, at least on the high-end projector used at the first screening — ironically, it's the high frame rate, and the need for more details, that dipped the occasional close-up the slightest bit into the uncanny valley. But given how well-known Smith is — perhaps the world's biggest movie star — it's an impressive accomplishment, especially because, as Lee suggested, it's Smith's intangibles that separate him from most other actors.

"One of the hardest things, if not the hardest thing, in the animation was how do you get the secret of him getting paid the big bucks: Will Smith's charm," Lee said. "Whether he's crying, he's angry, or menacing. There's a lot of menacing scenes, but you still love him. What is the secret? How do you animate that? How do you capture that? He cannot play that in his 50s, he now has a different charm. And you cannot retrieve from his old movies. You can use it as a reference, but what drives it? What final touches of that? It's mostly in the lighting, not just texture."

The hope is that Gemini Man will do well enough, and engage enough people with its groundbreaking visuals, that more movies can be made with the technology. And for Lee, who has become a pioneer in the field, the goal is to use those movies to places where they are best displayed.

"My dream is, I hope this movie does some business, and other filmmakers will join in and will develop this thing, and bring people to the big theater," Lee said. "I would like to imagine single theaters come back with a big screen, different seat layout, more immersive. I would like to see people go back to the temple, spiritually, of the theater. That's my dream."

Gemini Man hits theaters nationwide on October 11.