- "Gemini Man," an upcoming film starring Will Smith, is an example of how far digital filmmaking can go.
- The movie, directed by "Life of Pi" visionary Ang Lee, uses advanced technology to create a fully computer-animated, 23-year-old version of Smith that appears alongside his real self.
- To create Smith's virtual character, the animation team looked at his traits in previous roles, including in the "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" and "Independence Day".
- While the new technology is groundbreaking for cinema, it can have more negative implications in real life— the rise of so-called "Deepfakes" of celebrities and politicians has become a real concern.
Will Smith plays two characters in the upcoming movie "Gemini Man": A 53-year-old elite hitman, Henry Brogan, and a younger 23-year-old version of himself, called Junior. The plot: Henry Brogan is suddenly being pursued by a mysterious young agent who can apparently foresee every single one of his moves.
What makes this film stand out is that Smith — who just turned 51 himself — is not made to look 23 through the use of heavy make-up or conventional Hollywood anti-aging technology. Instead, Smith's younger version of himself has been fully computer animated.
This is a new type of special effects technology that is setting a trend for the entire industry. At least, that's what the company behind the animations is hoping for.
Their hopes could soon become a reality because the animation is actually very convincing. Many film critics, who have already seen the film, agree: director Ang Lee has done a great job.
The script for the movie has been passed around Hollywood for more than a decade
The script for Gemini Man has been circulating around Hollywood for about 20 years. Until now, filmmakers agreed that the technology was not developed enough for the film to be produced.
Several actors — including Harrison Ford, Jon Voight, and Mel Gibson — all had their names attached to the project at one point. But the movie didn't move towards production until it came to director Ang Lee in 2017, who has already made a name for himself by directing films such as the Oscar-winning "Life of Pi" — another film known for its excellent visual effects.
Paramount Pictures commissioned Weta Digital, a New Zealand company founded by Peter Jackson, to animate "Gemini Man." Weta Digital has been responsible for the visual effects in the "Lord of the Rings" series, Marvel films such as "Avengers: Endgame" and the "X-Men" series. Stuart Adcock, head of the Facial Motion Department, is convinced that the new technology they used in "Gemini Man" is a big step for the film industry.
Several movies like 'Independence Day' were used to re-create Will Smith's 23-year-old self
To develop the technology, Jackson's team analyzed and processed Will Smith's entire facial and skin structure. But that's not all: they also took elements of Smith's younger self from films such as "Independence Day," "Bad Boys" and even his most-well known role in the 90s sitcom "The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air" — all of which were used to recreate Junior.
"Gemini Man" simulates Will Smith's skin structure on several levels and creates a network of muscle movements.
Adcock spent months dealing with difficult questions about how the human body responds, like how fluid in the eyes moves when someone blinks or moves their face, or long does it takes for the blood to flow back into someone's forehead after they frowns.
"This was the only way we could be sure that the animated Will Smith looked realistic," Adcock said in an interview with Business Insider. It took him about a year to make the face of 23-year-old Smith react authentically. Since then, Adcock hasn't stopped paying attention to people's facial expressions — even in his private life.
To create the most authentic animation possible, years of detailed research had to be put in
But the animator still faces a major problem: the audience does not often tolerate mistakes. "We've evolved to be experts in the most subtle things in the face that tell you this person's bullshitting you or this person's sick," Bill Westenhofer from the "Gemini Man" visual effects team told Wired.
"If we don't make our effects convincing, it's disturbing to look at them."
Convincing audiences is also only possible if the actors are excellent, says Adcock.
And it opens up new possibilities for cinema: "The technology can make it possible for good actors to play more than just roles that are their own age."
Animating the young version of Will Smith ended up costing almost twice as much as the actor's annual salary, the production claims.
Smith was ranked tenth on the "Forbes" list of the best paid actors this year — proving that actors, at least, are not at immediate risk of losing their jobs to computer-animated "competition" thanks so the high costs.
But visual effects are playing an increasingly important role. At the IFA exhibition in Berlin this September, it was Adcock who was flooded with questions on stage — not Smith or Lee.
The dark side of the realistic technology
The new technology, however, raise questions about how it can be used outside of film.
In the last few years, so-called "Deepfakes" have been on the rise — videos of celebrities or politicians that look deceptively real, but are not. If technology falls into the wrong hands, what would the consequences be, especially in the current climate of false reporting and political uncertainties?
It could also create something of a crisis for actors.
"The ability to create photo-realistic characters, to digitally de-age actors or digitally resurrect performances from actors who have passed, raises some serious issues," said actor, director, and animation expert Andy Serkis in an interview with Screen Daily. Serkis is most well-known playing Gollum in "The Lord of the Rings" movie adaptations.
"When your performance becomes data it can be manipulated, reworked or sampled, much like the music industry samples vocals and beats. If we can do that, where does the intellectual property lie? Who owns the authorship of the performance? Where are the boundaries?"
But Adcock prefers to set his focus on the fictional world. "There will always be people who use technology for criminal purposes. It's the same with Photoshop," he said. "That's no reason not to develop them for films." He is aware that there are still some legal and ethical questions to be clarified behind the new technology.
"Gemini Man" will be shown in US cinemas from October 11.