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David Poland

By David Poland

CG Man Showdown: The Irishman v Gemini Man

I’m not interested in reviewing The Irishman or Gemini Man right now. What fascinates me is the Computer Graphics of it all. Two master filmmakers approaching a significant amount of this technology, deeply embedded in the storytelling of each film. But two very different approaches, which define how each film will be remembered.

Martin Scorsese – whose film I am anxious to see again before reviewing – basically made a film from a script as though he wasn’t making an effects film at all. This includes having the actors of a certain age give the physical performances that the age-reduced faces will be laid over. And the choice has fallen just right for a lot of film critics.

Ang Lee, on the other hand, does double, maybe triple, in comparison, duty on the cutting edge train. First, he continues to experiment with the 120-frame-per-second format. And it has a real effect on his work behind the camera. All the limitations of Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk have clearly been measured, considered, and in many ways corrected this time out. The Big Two are the close-up and darkness.

120fps works much better – perhaps the only time in which it is superior to 24fps – in a tight shot of someone’s face. So we get a lot more of that in Gemini Man than we did in Billy Lynn’s. There is a lot of space in action… and that is fine… although it really looks like you shot it on your iPhone. But when you get emotional moments, fill that screen with face.

Darkness is also key… and a huge part of Gemini Man. It’s not all nighttime. And darkness doesn’t always eliminate the TV look. But when there is subtlety and variation in the light, the picture just looks much better in 120fps than when it is bright.

Darkness is also a key to the CG work in Gemini Man. The only time the CG character in the film screams that it is false is in the final scene – no spoilers here – in which the character is walking through a sunlit space in normal (not black, not camo) clothing. And it looks horrible. It’s almost as though Lee is trying to tell the audience, “Wasn’t that cool for most of the movie? Here is what we still can’t do well. So look forward to my next movie because we plan on fixing it by then.”

But overall, the creation of Young Will Smith on Gemini Man, is technically superior to the de-aging work on The Irishman. What is the measure? How distracting is the effect?

Simply, the “Junior” character is more realistic as a living being than the de-aged character faces in Irishman. And that is really because Lee & WETA built “Junior” to be the character in every frame. I am betting that there were also body doubles doing a lot of work for both “Junior” and Will. So there was likely some “adding the face” in stunts. (There was actually a shot in the motorcycle chase where I felt like I saw the stuntman’s face instead of Will Smith’s, which was kind of shocking given the amount of CG work here.). But mostly, they built “Junior” and his physicality and movement (lots of it close) and there were rare moments where the effect was obvious.

That said, there were many moments in Gemini Man that I know would have been better if Ang Lee were not leaning into the limitations of both the CG and the 120fps. I don’t think it’s arguable. Yes, I agree that limitations are of great value to forcing an artist to raise the bar even further than originally intended (see: Jaws), but some things were off. Particularly in sequences that should have connected emotionally – not the close-up talking, of which there is a lot – but within action sequences.

As for Scorsese and The Irishman, Marty clearly wasn’t going to adjust much for technology. In fact, he actually made a film that was slower and less visually flashy than he has in years. He kind of invites the scrutiny of the not-always-perfect CG work.

As I wrote earlier, he shot the movie… he cut the movie… they added the de-aging effects. When a 75-year-old body with a 50-year-old face throws a gun, you can read it as a misstep or subtext.

And the dichotomy of making his slowest-paced mainstream film while also engaging more computer graphics work – by far – than he ever as before is fascinating. And again, different people read that different ways.

As a result, many critics connect to The Irishman as one of Scorsese’s best. Not only that, as a career summation.

I don’t think anyone will see Gemini Man as one of Ang Lee’s best films. Unlike the effects-heavy Life of Pi, Lee seems to adjust to the effects rather than demanding that the effects – ironically, a lot easier to create a lion than a human – come to his directing choices.

Scorsese could have made The Irishman in the era before computer effects. In fact, DeNiro did a similar role in a film that I think Scorsese was paying great homage to, Once Upon A Time in America. They did use other actors to play the group in their early teens. But the group of actors was also aged up and down.

Gemini Man could also have been made, though there would have been a key concession, in that no matter how much the young Will Smith looked like Will Smith, he wouldn’t seem to be an exact match. Additionally, the stunt work would have been infinitely more complicated, unless somehow the best match was also a high-end stuntperson.

For me, the CG and 120fps efforts in both films come up short. We are still in the early days of this kind of digital actor replacement/enhancement technology. When used in abundance, it shows itself and distracts. Sorry. Wish it was not so. We can all see the remarkable progress that has been made. WETA and ILM continue to battle it out. And in some uses, the tech has seemed perfect. It helps when faces are obfuscated in some way.

But these two examples of this tech are not the same at all. The approach is very different. The purpose is different. And the results are very different. Both films will be seen as landmarks along the way to seamless work in the future.

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8 Responses to “CG Man Showdown: The Irishman v Gemini Man”

  1. Dr Wally Rises says:

    It’s good to see you back here talkin’ the actual movies again David. As for the topic, it still blows my.mind that still the best use of de-aging (and indeed up-aging) technology was Benjamin Button. And that was a long eleven years ago.

  2. David Poland says:

    We are working on a new MCN site…

  3. Monco says:

    I can’t stand this practice of de-aging via CGI. Why not just re-cast the role with a younger actor? You know like Godfather Part II.

  4. Dr Wally Rises says:

    Horses for courses Monco. In principle using the same actor can give you a consistency of characterization that you may not get otherwise. However, on some occasions casting different actors can work if you want to emphasise the contrast between the same character at wildly different chapters in their life. A great recent example of this was Love & Mercy. Paul Dano and John Cusack don’t look remotely alike, and the film doesn’t even try to pretend that they do, but the very contrast between the hopeful artist and the broken man was brought more to the fore. So it’s not really a game of absolutes.

  5. xiuxiuxiu says:

    A new MCN site?!? Such fantastic news!

    David, I miss your writing and look forward to reading it again on a more frequent basis.

  6. movieman says:

    Maybe it’s because my expectations were so low, but I didn’t hate “Gemini Man” although it’s arguably Ang Lee’s worst film.
    I worry that Lee has fallen into the post-2000 Robert Zemeckis CGI rabbit hole and, like Zemeckis, won’t ever be able to correct course.
    Mary Elizabeth Winstead was the highlight for me (why isn’t she getting juicy roles in important movies?); the low point being the “young” Will Smith who has a creepily off-putting plasticine quality that’s definitely Not Human.
    As someone remarked in another thread, they could have saved themselves $100-million by hiring Jaden Smith. He couldn’t have looked any less human (or “Willl Smith-like”) than the pixels, or whatever they were.
    It wasn’t a painful sit, but I enjoyed “Angel Has Fallen” more.
    Which is as damning a commentary as anyone could make about “The New Ang Lee Movie.”

  7. Stella's Boy says:

    Yeah I’ve seen a lot of people lamenting the fact that Ang Lee seems to be obsessed with technology at the expense of everything else. Also, I read that only 14 theaters in America will be showing Gemini Man in the frame rate Lee shot it in. If that’s the case, why did Paramount bother? Can’t really show off the technology in 14 theaters nationwide. $140 million movie. Seems dumb. The movie looks straight out of like 1998. Which isn’t entirely a bad thing. But I don’t live by a theater showing it in that frame rate so I see no reason to see it in theaters.

  8. movieman says:

    I really hope Lee returns to earth.
    He’s been so good (and so remarkably versatile) for so long: a Jane Austen adaptation; ’70s suburban key parties; a Civil War western; a wuxia epic worthy of “Lawrence of Arabia”-era David Lean; gay cowboys; Marvel (the still undervalued “Hulk”); the great and glorious “Pi;” his warmly humanistic Taiwanese domestics dramedies; Woodstock…I even thought “Billy Lynn” had
    its moments (at least whenever Kristen Stewart was onscreen).
    It’d be a shame if we lost another great director to whatzit technology (following in the footsteps of the afore-mentioned Zemeckis and post-1977 George Lucas).

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