For 20th Century Studios’ Free Guy – a movie set in the real world and in a role-playing video game – visual effects were paramount in creating the worlds and characters, particularly “Guy,” an NPC (non-player character) in the game, portrayed by Ryan Reynolds.
To get the appropriate look and feel for the movie, produced by VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg, whose credits include Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame, says he and director Shawn Levy started their process by – what else? – playing lots of video games. In the end, the film’s look is “an amalgamation of many games and it’s definitely a heightened level,” Gillberg says, citing Grand Theft Auto and Fortnite as two inspirations.
Work on Reynolds – including head replacement and creation of a digital stunt double – involved a significant amount of work. “I ran Ryan through the gauntlet, which means I scanned him every which way you can imagine,” admits Gillberg of the starting point for the VFX. “We did our traditional photogrammetry scanning. We also sent him to [USC’s] Institute for Creative Technologies to do a high-resolution facial scan. ”
Some of the design requirements varied as the story involved the real world, the gameplay and the Free City game world. For instance, the digital versions of Reynolds in the gameplay shots started out “extremely photo-real, and then you couldn’t tell it was gameplay,” says Gillberg. “We went down this other route and made it extremely cartoony. That was not empathetic enough for the audience. So we dialed it back to something probably closer to Grand Theft Auto. And we used all the scanning for that, to get Ryan’s in-game play emotive enough for the audience to care about him. “
Face replacement was used to create Dude, a heightened version of Guy, which involved working with VFX studio Lola to capture Reynolds’ facial expressions and apply his likeness and movement to the on-set performance of bodybuilder Aaron Reed. “Ryan would do his part against either Aaron or his body double,” says Gillberg of these scenes. “Then Ryan would do Dude’s side as a reference for Aaron to try to get the comedy and the mannerisms. Then we’d reshoot it with Ryan and Aaron, and then do a reference pass with Ryan for lighting. “
Gillberg emphasizes the importance of the actors’ performances. “I always want to get the actors in there because it’s about performance and eyeline and passion and all those things,” he says. “Even though we did some of it in the post, it was still Ryan’s performance directed by Shawn.”
Free Guy‘s estimated 1,300 VFX shots were shared by VFX houses including Scanline, Digital Domain and Lola. In addition to the digital work on main characters, Gillberg says that the VFX team created an estimated 50 background characters, including newbs (newbie players), plus environments and effects. Free City is an amalgamation of Boston, Pittsburgh and Miami. “We scanned and shot all three,” Gillberg says. “I scanned 12 city blocks in Boston, LIDAR [light detecting and ranging], but we also did drone photogrammetry. In Pittsburgh, we did aerials, and in Miami we did an aerial. ”
Key effects sequences include what Gillberg calls the “street squeeze,” which occurs during a car chase with Guy and Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) trying to escape the ruthless Antwan (Taika Waititi) in an orange Camaro. “We built 12 city blocks of Boston digitally, to every detail you can imagine – mailboxes, street signs, trees, weeds, you name it,” he says. “As you move the buildings in the sidewalk buckled, and when the lamppost buckled, the sidewalk hit the tree, the tree hit the car. All of it happened in one simulation. We built in tools to fine-tune that simulation, but it was 100 percent simulation. ”
Another was the scene during which Antwan destroys the servers – and therefore, Free City. “We came up with a different look,” he says of what involved R&D work. “The buildings actually fold in on themselves. They don’t explode. The destruction of the city was [about] coming up with something that felt like a computer was destroying it. ”
Gillberg concludes, “Our whole goal throughout was to come up with an entertaining, eye-popping, fun thing but also to play homage to the video game community.”
This story first appeared in a January stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.