What does Ang Lee’s Gemini Man mean for cinema’s future?

Critics consider digitally created actors and ultra-realistic high frame rate filmmaking in Ang Lee’s latest.
Gemini Man - Ang Lee

On its surface, Ang Lee’s Gemini Man looks like a fairly straightforward action movie, albeit with a sci-fi twist. Will Smith plays a retired government assassin who finds himself squaring off against the perfect opponent: a younger version of himself. So far, the movie has been widely panned by critics, with much of the criticism focusing on two major directorial decisions that Lee made: using digital effects to create a younger Will Smith and shooting the film with “high frame rate” (HFR) technology.

When you have computers, do you really need actors?

In her Gemini Man review, Alissa Wilkinson fears that the film’s digitally “de-aged” Will Smith forbodes a disturbing cinematic trend:

[T]he movie feels like a proof of concept for something that’s been floated before… the inevitability that someday, when the technology is good enough, likenesses of actors will replace the actors themselves. “Performances” in films will come from fully animated but hyper-realistic versions of beloved actors, created in a computer, with licensing fees paid to the original human. Given enough time, the simulacrum will overcome the reality, negating the need for originals at all.


But the notion of slowly pushing the need for actors out of the filmmaking process makes me worry about what else we’ll try to get rid of. Composers? Cinematographers? Writers and directors? Right now, technology can’t convincingly ape the human touch. But if we get used to generic, shallow, vapid, derivative storytelling and flat-looking images, and simply show up at the movies to be made to feel as if we’re in the middle of an explosion, then that’s eventually what the industry will turn out.

In a recent interview with Polygon’s Matt Patches, Lee explains why he loves the digitally enhanced filmmaking that Wilkinson decries:

Your interest in the eyes makes using an all-digital version of Will Smith to play his younger self a fascinating choice: Weta artists have always said the key to these CG characters is in the eyes, and in Gemini Man, you’re shooting in a way that puts that work under a microscope. Were you especially particular about directing the animation of Junior’s eyes?

We went over and over it for years. You cannot even do that with actors. With actors, you tell them, then you shoot it. Now with this, you have months with 500 people trying to find “the thing.” Of course, it’s very expensive. There’s huge data running each time they run a test. Maybe they budgeted for 15 times rendering [the footage]. But maybe it would go … five times more? 10 times more? We just kept trying.

For a filmmaker, if you’re not paying for it, it is a luxury to study, micro-study, how emotion works, how you read into people. The little nuances from the microscopic study of emotion and muscle relation. The skin of the eyes, the way it reacts to every little movement in relation to light. It’s a scientific study more so than impressionism. Like how light comes to play with this thing other than physics, textures. Why does a certain movement make you think he’s thinking something? It’s really fascinating. If people don’t buy that, of course it hurts.

You’ve mentioned that part of your interest in shooting Gemini Man at 120 fps was to stage the most realistic fist fights possible, with random fight videos on YouTube as the bar to pass. When and how did that become a pursuit for you?

From my first fight movie, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Of course, I had the best action choreographer, the great Yuen Woo-Ping. But I’ve been trying to pursue this. It wasn’t possible. You would hurt people. Then I realized movie fighting is dancing. It’s the opposite of physics and intention from real fights, from a YouTube fight. But a YouTube fight is ugly and it ends very shortly. It doesn’t last four minutes. It doesn’t fascinate you. So how do you do that? I never found a way for 20 years until we had to actually have digital doubles made. It’s free! You have to do it anyway. So here comes my chance. I grabbed it. I been thinking that for a long time. I’ve tried different ways. I’ve hurt people and I didn’t want to hurt them anymore.

Wilkinson’s review expresses concern that Gemini Man’s filmmaking technology could lead to movies that feature performances, not by actual humans, but by “fully animated but hyper-realistic versions of beloved actors.” Given the box office dominance by big budget, action-filled spectacles that rely heavily on digital effects, her concerns are not so easily dismissed.

But what intangible element(s) might be lost or sacrificed when “live action” movie performances are nothing more than a series of digital effects? And what might also be lost in the pursuit as filmmakers and effects technicians spend countless hours trying to overcome the uncanny valley with their digital creations rather than improving their films in other ways?

Interestingly, Lee enthusiastically celebrates the very thing that concerns Wilkinson (i.e., using digital stand-ins), not out of a desire to diminish cinema but rather, to achieve things in movies that are currently impossible to do with living, breathing actors (not without risking their lives, anyway).

That Lee is focused on creating super-realistic action sequences as much as anything else (like performances that are digitally fine-tuned) seems to confirm Wilkinson’s gloomy outlook (i.e., showing up to the movies only “to be made to feel as if we’re in the middle of an explosion”). After all, if you’re working with pixels instead of flesh and blood, then there are no limits: you can stage the craziest, most violent fights and aim for the biggest, most mind-blowing stunts imaginable.

Frame rates: How high is too high?

In addition to creating a digital version of his lead actor, Lee shot Gemini Man at an extremely high frame rate: 120 frames/second (fps). Traditionally, films have been shot at 24 fps. Due to how our brains work, though, we don’t see those frames as 24 individual images (which is what they are). Instead, we see the illusion of motion as all of the frames blur together to create a look that we consider “cinematic.”

However, as Benny Har-Even points out, the 24 fps frame rate creates problems when shooting in 3D “where fast panning and motion artefacts result in a disorientating effect that has put many off the stereoscopic format.” So filmmakers armed with digital technology — which isn’t limited to 24 fps — have begun experimenting with HFR filmmaking to better accommodate 3D effects. For example, Peter Jackson shot the Hobbit trilogy at 48 fps and James Cameron will shoot his upcoming Avatar sequels in HFR, too.

One of the biggest criticisms of HFR footage is that it doesn’t look like a movie but instead, like video game cutscenes, soap operas, or TVs with the “motion smoothing” option enabled. If you want to see an example of this, watch this (warning: bloody) action scene from Ang Lee’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, which was also shot at 120 fps. (Make sure you’re watching at the “1080p60” quality setting or higher.)

Without commenting on the acting, dialog, etc., that scene simply doesn’t look like it’s from a movie. It just looks, for lack of a better term, weird. Lee claims that 120 fps is “more immersive” but ironically, it may be too immersive, such that you don’t have any space to sit back and reflect on what you’re seeing.

Thanks to the visual flatness and extreme clarity, everything in the scene is in your face and demanding your attention, which makes it harder to process and comprehend while, at the same time, diminishing any impact it might have. As Daniel Engber writes in his review of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk:

Montages, tilts, and focus pulls provide a structure for a movie; they work like punctuation marks on a printed page, barely noticed guides for your attention. In Billy Lynn, the HFR makes those guides pop out. Panning shots no longer blur the background with their motion; cuts seem extra jagged. As a viewer, it felt like reading a book in which all the commas and periods had been put in bold and underlined.

Granted, it’s a chaotic action scene, but I suspect the effect would be similar for quieter, more dialog-driven scenes.

Of course, the above reaction begs the question: does HFR footage look weird because there’s actually something inherently “bad” about it or simply because I’m used to 24 fps? Is my negative reaction to HFR objective, or just reactionary? Steven Greydanus brought this up in a recent Twitter thread where he asked why HFR films look so bad compared to 24 fps films: “Is it expectations and associations (and will we adjust in time)? Is it so real that we perceive the seams (in acting, effects, props)? Both? Something else? Not sure anyone knows.”

If it really does boil down to “expectations and associations,” then it’s plausible that frame rates like 120 fps may someday be considered as “cinematic” as 24 fps is today, perhaps even moreso. But as much as he loves HFR filmmaking, even Ang Lee realizes that we’re not there yet:

I think for right now we say it looks real, so then we try to make it look real. But once we know how to play with it, and not only the filmmakers, but the audience … I think it’ll take some time before we start playing with it.

It’ll likely take a combination of updated audience expectations, filmmakers using it more often and more skillfully, new cinematic language, and improvements in both camera and projector technology for HFR filmmaking to cease looking weird — or at least as weird as it does right now. And even then, that might not be enough for some people. In any case, the reactions to Gemini Man prove that we’ve still got a long way to go.

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