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October 06
2021

ISSUE

Fall 2021

GAME ON: FREE GUY VFX ANCHORS BOTH ACTUAL AND SIMULACRUM REALITIES

By KEVIN H. MARTIN

 Images courtesy of 20th Century Studios and Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures. 
Video-game character Guy (Ryan Reynolds) squares off against an array of other gaming denizens. Guy’s growing awareness of his own nature, revealed by programmer Millie (Jodie Comer), fuels his desire to save his Free City pseudo-world from the game’s publisher (Taika Waititi).

The hero who wakes up to realize his existence is limited to a virtual or controlled-from-outside reality has become something of a staple in genre filmmaking, popularized by The Matrix and The Truman Show, to name just two such entries. While Free Guy treads similar ground, its protagonist Guy (Ryan Reynolds) is no world-class hacker or unwitting reality-show star, but just a bank teller, cheerfully plodding through a ritualized daily routine that involves his Free City surroundings – the setting for a video game of the same name – suffering massive devastation and violence. Once awakened to the situation, Guy must step up his own game to stop the program’s publisher from shutting down Free City permanently. 

Director Shawn Levy has a long history with VFX-heavy projects ranging from the first two Night at the Museum installments to Real Steel and several episodes of the Stranger Things series, along with a remake of Starman in the works, plus he intends to re-team with Reynolds on a time-travel project for Netflix. To look after the VFX end of things, he chose Visual Effects Supervisor Swen Gillberg, whose past experience spans both real-world (Flags of Our Fathers, A Beautiful Mind) and fantasy environs (Jack the Giant Slayer and a trio of recent MCU features). 

Gillberg joined Free Guy’s production team in December 2018, after the arrival of Production Designer Ethan Tobman. “Ethan had already done some design work on Free City,” Gillberg recalls. “But there was real evolution to things and, design-wise, it was a group effort going well into the next year to develop how things looked in this world. When our DP George Richmond came on, he had a great idea: shoot the real world on 4-perf anamorphic, but handle the gaming section with ARRI 65 and big, sharp spherical lenses to give them a very different look.” 

Live action was accomplished in Boston between May and August of 2019. Direct Dimensions LiDar scanned most locations and set during the live-action shoot in Boston, which featured extensive practical work by Special Effects Supervisor Dan Sudick.

“There’s ‘Reality,’ which is present-day, supposedly set in Seattle. Then, inside Free City, you see our gaming world – a photoreal emulation of a real-world game – which is where most of the movie and most of the VFX take place. But there are also views of a lower-res Free City, as seen on monitor screens when real-world people, including the villain [Taika Waititi], who works in a gaming company, play Free City.”

—Swen Gillberg, Visual Effects Supervisor

Live-action was accomplished in Boston between May and August of 2019, with Gillberg’s old friend Ron Underdahl acting as lead for the bevy of data wranglers. “A company that I’ve used many times in the past, Direct Dimensions, LiDared pretty much everything,” he notes. “There were HDRs for every setup and lots and lots of panels to be done, so still photography was a big aspect throughout. Special Effects Supervisor Dan Sudick was handling floor effects, so the in-camera work was very solid.” Gillberg elected to work with a total of 11 vendors: Scanline VFX, Digital Domain and ILM Singapore were primaries, aided by Halon (which shared previs duties with DD), BOT VFX, capital T, Lola Visual Effects, Mammal Studios and Raynault VFX. 

Unlike Tron and most other films exploring this dual-worlds concept, Free Guy actually required three levels of reality. “There’s ‘Reality,’ which is present-day, supposedly set in Seattle,” says Gillberg. “Then, inside Free City, you see our gaming world – a photoreal emulation of a real-world game – which is where most of the movie and most of the VFX take place. But there are also views of a lower-res Free City, as seen on monitor screens when real-world people, including the villain [Taika Waititi], who works in a gaming company, play Free City.

“There was a ton of work involved in making that video game version of the gaming world,” Gillberg relates, “and it had to really hold up when the camera pushes in past the real-world characters to the screen where we see versions of our Free City characters, before transitioning into Ryan and the other actors. It was a fine line for us to walk. While the game versions of their characters did have to be immediately recognizable and compelling, we didn’t want the video game versions of Ryan and the others to look too real, which meant maintaining some contrast between the video game versions and the characters themselves. So, we started that process by figuring out what the video game itself should look like. Did we want something looking more like Warcraft, or other games that are even more realistic?”

Levy’s input was often sought throughout look development. “Shawn wanted the game versions to be recognizable enough that the audience could empathize, even when we’re only seeing them on this gaming screen,” reports Gillberg. “I showed Shawn a range of video games, and based on that we settled on a look that was kind of a cinematic version of Grand Theft Auto. All of the movement of the characters would be at a full mocap level rather than canned animation.

Jodie Comer (Molotov Girl) and Ryan Reynolds in Free Guy.

Guy’s unvarying daily routine as a bank teller is disrupted when, after donning a special pair of glasses, the entirety of the ‘Bank Robbery’ gaming world set in Free City is revealed to him.

“There was a ton of work involved in making that video game version of the gaming world, and it had to really hold up when the camera pushes in past the real-world characters to the screen where we see versions of our Free City characters, before transitioning into Ryan and the other actors. It was a fine line for us to walk. While the game versions of their characters did have to be immediately recognizable and compelling, we didn’t want the video game versions of Ryan and the others to look too real, which meant maintaining some contrast between the video game versions and the characters themselves.” 

—Swen Gillberg, Visual Effects Supervisor 

This look brought with it more definition in the emoting talking faces. At first we were going to limit the talking to a simple hinged jaw, but that reduced emotional engagement. To keep a more compelling look, we enhanced the face rigs on the game. There isn’t much talking going on, so instead of head cams we did witness cams. The facial rigs were essentially keyframed, while the hand and body motion was motion-captured.” 

In addition to handling all shots of the video game version of Free City, Digital Domain also took on some ‘actual’ Free City scenes. “VFX Supervisor Nikos Kalaitzidis oversaw all that,” notes Gillberg, “which included the opening oner plus a construction site. The real-world game programmers keep reprogramming the Free City environment to obstruct Guy’s passage, so he has to deal with obstacles like stairs moving around.” 

Another impediment faced by Guy as he attempts to save the day was handled by Scanline VFX Supervisor Bryan Grill. “The villain decides to stop Guy’s orange car by squeezing the street in on both sides to crush the vehicle between buildings,” says Gillberg. Scanline was also responsible for all of the building destruction. “We went through a development stage to determine the right look for destruction in the video game world, which meant figuring out whether these collapsing buildings were just shells, or was there firmature? It took tons of artwork and iterations before finally winding up with something that has all the gravitas and real emotional impact of a genuine building collapse, but still kept a video game look to things. Pieces fall in a very naturalistic way, but then as they fall, they rotate around their own center of gravity and then kind of suck into themselves. That look for the debris, which also included a wire-frame kind of blue glow, kept it well away from 9/11 photorealism, but there was still enough weight to it that audiences would care when seeing this world being destructed.” 

One early design concept that stuck postulated a ‘box’ outside of the gaming world. “This box was all blue skies and white clouds,” Gillberg notes, “so when the buildings blow up, you can see this blue sky behind them – even when the camera is up high looking down at the ground!” 

“After we finished shooting, there were multiple huge pushes through the end of 2019 to produce really good-looking temps,” Gillberg says. “Shawn really wanted the test screenings to have decent visual effects in them, so we completed the screening VFX at a higher-[than-usual] level, but then would abandon those and go back to another approach for the real finals. DD was originally assigned to doing previs for the construction site sequence, but at that time lacked bandwidth, so they rendered all of their previs through a game engine in Unreal. This let us quickly evaluate the effects and how they impacted the story, so the screening process definitely led to a mix of lost and gained shots between the tests and when we completed our finals.” 

Taika Waititi (Antoine), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Mouser) and Joe Kerry (Keys) in Free Guy.

Since post had not fully ramped up when COVID hit, there was a scarcity of finals as of February 2020. “That meant the bulk of the work had to get done during lockdown,” admits Gillberg. “But there were a couple of weeks when it looked like everybody would be going home, as there was a fair amount of pressure to shut the whole thing down. I lobbied heavily against that, feeling there was a good body of talented individuals already on board and that it would be a shame to lose them, so we didn’t ever completely stop. First off, it was a matter of coming up with different protocols in order to work from home. That involved many VPN tunnels into our server on the FOX lot, to establish encrypted links. We set up a screening room at Shawn’s house, which I could drive remotely. Being able to work straight through the heart of the lockdown pleased me greatly, as it let us all stay focused while still having a lot of fun, trying out lots of new ideas.” 

While the live-action cinematography had relied upon a single real-world LUT and another pair for the virtual gaming world, the looks were refined significantly during digital grading. “We’d re-balance sequences while retaining the general tone,” says Gillberg. “In our final grade, I worked with George and colorist Skip Kimball, and we let the real world go toward more of a cool-blue feel while pushing the gaming world look to become even more colorful.” 

Being free from the constraints of traditional reality for the Free City scenes proved to be a strange attraction for Gillberg and his collaborators. “We had this premise of being in a video game world where anything goes,” observes Gillberg, “and that was a ton of fun for us to play with. I’ll give you an example: we’d be doing reviews with Shawn and somebody would ask, ‘What does this scene need?’ And somebody else might say, ‘This scene needs a dinosaur!’ And the thing here is, we can add that without worrying about the character not reacting to it, because for this clueless bank teller, it is normal to see that crazy stuff happen constantly in this violent world. We got to put in all kinds of video game vehicles and characters from other real games for people to recognize.” That creative rush did have limits, however. “We pushed until I added a TIE fighter, at which point I got told, ‘Stop!’” 

Live action in the real world was differentiated visually by DP George Richmond, who shot those scenes in 4-perf anamorphic, while Free City sequences were captured with spherical lenses using the ARRI 65. To create more of a distinction between Free City and the world outside, Gillberg worked with cinematographer and colorist Skip Kimball in the DI to create a more cool-blue monochromatic feel in the latter while pushing the gaming world in a more colorful direction.
Scanline’s work in destroying various buildings had to strike a balance between real-world impact and a video-game feel, with objects falling at a naturalistic speed while tumbling and vanishing in a showier way. The faux city’s design reflected the idea of a blue-sky-and-white-clouds box surrounding all, so when Free City is damaged, the ‘sky’ shows through beneath, even in views of the ground.

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