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BYO I Yi Yi

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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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“I really want to see The Irishman. I’ve heard it’s big brother Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece. But I really can’t find the time. The promotion schedule is so tight, there’s no opportunity to see a three and a half-hour movie. But I really want to see it. In 2017, right before Okja’s New York premiere, I had the chance to go to Scorsese’s office, which is in the DGA building. There’s a lovely screening room there, too, with film prints that he’s collected. I talked to him for about an hour. There’s no movie he hasn’t seen, even Korean films. We talked about what he’s seen and his past work. It was a glorious day. I’ve loved his work since I was in college. Who doesn’t? Anyone involved with movies must feel the same way.”
~ Bong Joon-ho

“But okay, I promise you now that if I ever retire again, I’m going to ensure that I can’t walk it back. I’ll post a series of the most disgusting, offensive, outrageous statements you can ever imagine. That way it will be impossible for me to ever be employed again. No one is going to take my calls. No one is going to want to be seen with me. Oh, it will be scorched earth. I will have torched everything. I’m going to flame out in the most legendary fashion.”
~ Steven Soderbergh