Oct 10, 2019

The man who helped create Junior, the CGI-generated assassin, on how technology is changing film-making and why it deserves more respect.

Once Bill Westenhofer had footage from Paramount Pictures’ Gemini Man, the visual effects supervisor designed a challenge for Will Smith’s family. He showed them two clips featuring Smith: one from 1995’s Bad Boys and one from the upcoming Gemini Man. Westenhofer then asked the family to figure out which version was based on real footage.

They guessed wrong. Twice.

“They were tripping,” says Westenhofer, a two-time Oscar winner, one for 2012’s Life of Pi.

Gemini Man marks the first time a character has been entirely computer generated. The movie is about Henry Brogan, a 50-something elite assassin who is being hunted by Junior, a 23-year-old clone of Brogan. The script has been on hold for 20 years waiting for the technology to catch up to the idea.

Achieving the milestone required visual effects artists to reference footage of Smith from his younger days in The Fresh Prince. They also had Smith do “facial calisthenics” to create a database of his face and how his features look when responding to different scenarios.

Still, Westenhofer points out that Junior isn’t a carbon copy of the younger Smith audiences grew up watching. This version is an assassin so he’s more muscular and moves with greater efficiency.

Visual effects professionals have never been more in-demand in Hollywood, and digital “actors” have the potential to change the way stories are told. Westenhofer recently discussed the challenges facing his industry, the experts it takes to seamlessly integrate CGI into a film, and what viewers may expect in the future.

"It’s being able to create a completely digital person convincingly."

Bill Westenhofer

Visual Effects Supervisor, "Gemini Man"

Tara Weiss: I understand the script has been around Hollywood for 20 years but was waiting for the technology to catch up before the move could be made. How did the technology evolve to get us to this point?

Bill Westenhofer: We’ve been de-aging actors for years during the editing process. And there have been attempts at creating a digital person that come close, like Princess Leia and Grand Moff Tarkin in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. But people felt it was still not quite there.

It wasn’t one particular thing. It’s being able to create a completely digital person convincingly. Weta [the visual effects company] used medical textbooks to find different levels of say, the eye, to find out why light reacts the way it does. They got into the science of the layers of skin, since there are four different types of melanin. And we kept advancing the art of capturing human emotion and the movement of the body and face. But at a certain point we had to rely on the computer to find what was wrong and fix it. That last three percent [of what looked off] is almost subconscious.

A still of Will Smith in the upcoming Paramount Pictures film, "Gemini Man."

TW: You’ve spoken about visual effects professionals and the push to get producers to understand the artistry behind it. You’ve been quoted as saying, “We’re artists not technicians.” What do you mean by that?

BW: Visual effects contribute as much to a film as anyone else, and at the time I said that, there seemed to be this race to find the cheapest way to do visual effects. Producers wouldn't find a cheap director of photography because they’re worried about the quality of results from someone less skilled. It's recognizing the fact that the visual effects team is adding to your film. We help the story points on the scripts to help better visually tell a story. It’s remembering that we are still a creative force to the film.

TW: When you won the Oscar for Best Achievement in Visual Effects for Life of Pi in 2013 you attempted to address the business of the visual effects industry in your speech but were cut off. Later that night you told reporters, “At a time when visual effects movies are dominating the box office, visual effects companies are struggling. We’re artists, and if we don’t find a way to fix the business model, we start to lose the artistry.” That was six years ago. How is the industry doing today?

BW: There's very little visual effects still being done in L.A. There are a couple of companies that have managed to survive, but the vast majority of work is being done in places that are subsidizing the labor such as in London and Canada. A lot of artists have had to relocate just to keep working. The demand is high, but the pressures are still there to find an ever-cheaper way to create the film. And I do understand that the same thing is happening from the top down, that the media landscape is changing. People are looking at things online and streaming, and so that does have an effect. But there’s still a lingering sense when you get on a film set that the visual effects department is not looked at with the same degree of respect that other departments have enjoyed for all the years that they've been on the film projects.


"We’ve been de-aging actors for years during the editing process. And there have been attempts at creating a digital person that come close"

TW: It’s surprising to hear given the audience expectation for mind-blowing visual effects.

BW: It's a shame. The irony of all this is that if my mic hadn’t been cut off during the Oscars, and if I had said it all on stage, it probably wouldn't have had as big an impact as if it hadn’t been cut off.

TW: Still, your visual effects team for Gemini Man must have been big. How many people did you hire?

BW: 500 people at its peak. That included companies in L.A., Prague and New Zealand.

TW: Can you explain the nitty gritty of assembling your team? You’re sourcing people with granular areas of expertise. How does it all come together?

BW: The visual effects for any movie changes every single time. You never know what it needs. At Rhythm and Views (the visual effects and animation company behind Life of Pi), we brought in physicists who were trained in the science of fluid dynamics. But they were also artists who could make water look pretty at the same time as moving correctly. In Life of Pi, the oceans were as big a character as the tiger. The majority of people I hire are either classical artists that we make the tools work for, or technicians that have a little bit of creative bent and we find a way to hone both of their skills.

I'm a computer engineer and a computer scientist who was always drawing and painting as a kid. I've told graduating classes that sometimes the electives that you take are as important as your major, because you never know how you're going to apply what you've learned out in the world. Absorb everything you can.

TW: What can we expect to see from visual effects in the future?

BW: There's something called real-time rendering where people use game engine technology. Now when you shoot an actor in front of a green screen, you film that and that footage is scanned and sent off to a company. It takes weeks or months for them to come back with the backgrounds and then the finished shots. If you have a game engine, it's just tracking the camera as you film, and you're actually getting your backgrounds made on-set at the time. When you leave set, you're done. You can go straight to air from there instead of waiting for the turnaround time. That can change the filmmaking process in a good way.

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