In Twentieth-Century Studios’ adventure-comedy Free Guy, Ryan Reynolds’ character discovers he is actually a non-playable character in a brutal open-world video game. In our fxguide part 1, we looked at the work of Digital Domain and Scanline VFX. In Part 2, we talk to Halon and Industrial Light & Magic (ILM).
The third act of the film in particular presented ILM with both complex technical challenges and some strangely familiar work. ILM’s work on Shawn Levy’s Free Guy was overseen by visual effects supervisors Paolo Acri and Russel Earl. ILM was challenged to bring a veritable toybox of references to life from across movies and video games, from Star Wars and the MCU’s Captain America & Hulk to Halo and even Fortnite.
ILM started working on Free Guy in the summer of 2019, in part because of their outstanding work in Ready Player One. The film was a clear visual reference to a film with two worlds one real, one inside a ‘game’ environment. Initially, ILM was only going to do a small number of shots, but they quickly got involved with 60-70% of the postviz of the film. Paolo Acri is an Associate Visual Effects Supervisor at ILM’s Singapore studio, he believed the creatives were impressed with how responsive ILM was in generating material and exploring creative ideas. “We went into to an initial phase of trying to very quickly and very effectively come up with creative solutions that supported the nature of the movie.”
Paolo Acri joined ILM in 2010. He had previously worked at ILM as a Compositor and Compositing Supervisor. His credits include projects such as A Quiet Place Part II, Transformers: The Last Knight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Avengers: Infinity War, and Kong Skull Island. Prior to joining ILM, Acri worked as a Digital Compositor at various visual effects companies, including MPC in London where he contributed to movies such as Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows.
In terms of final sequences, ILM did the key fight between Guy and the “Dude” that Antwan, played by Taika Waititi, releases into the game, in the third act of the film. “It was really fun to come up with ideas for all the different kinds of weaponry for such a fight scene,” says Acri. ILM had to build a completely digital Ryan Reynolds and a digi-double Dude, which included a full groom and is seen quite close up in shot. Some of these were related to stunts with digital takeovers in-shot between the real actor and their digital copies. But sometimes the director also wanted to change the timing of a fall for comic timing reasons.
Acri commented on how well the production prepared for the various visual effects. Ryan was scanned at USC ICT, supervised by Paul Debevec. For each scene, the team had LIDAR scans of the environment available and HDRI scans. But while the ILM referenced the diffuse and specular actor scans from the Light stage, Acri pointed out that they did not need to generate facial lip-sync dialogue as their digital doubles were intended for actions sequences, thus the team did not do Medusa sessions or 4D temporal scans.
In addition to crafting (and destroying) buildings and environments, ILM was also tasked with rapidly prototyping a bevy of diverse assets for the film, including vehicles, background gags, and everything in between, such as dragons, centaurs, mecha-walkers, and unicorns. This is also where the depth of ILM’s library assets came into play. ILM has a vast library of neutral high-quality assets. To make a unicorn, the modelers could simply access the ILM library of horses and leverage these high-quality assets to immediately make a unicorn. For creating the Halo, the team had to decide on which version of the popular game to reference. In the case of Halo, there are multiple versions of the characters and props in each of the different versions of Halo, Halo 2 and 3 etc. In addition, the Scorpion tank and other Halo assets were in the film. The Llama from Fortnite also makes a cameo in the form of a pickaxe during the climactic fight.
Weapons from Valve’s Portal and Half-life are also seen in the Dude fight. The Portal Gun appears when Molotov Girl (Jodie Comer) and Guy teleport back to her hideout as Guy fights Dude. The Gravity Gun from Half-Life is used to pick up Dude and drag him through the roof near the ocean. ILM tackled the portal effects for the film, by building them up from multiple layers of sims to create an end-effect that looked brilliant in both darkness and in light. As the film’s heroes had to transition from the lighting of one environment to the lighting on the other side of the portal, in some shots ILM transitioned with a ‘digital takeover’ to CG versions of Jodie and Ryan. This allowed for the correct lighting transition to be seen on their characters which really ‘sold’ the portal gag. Additionally, in some cases, the actors fell on mats, and it was more convincing to replace both the environment and the actors with fully digital versions. Digital projection techniques were used in many of the digital takeovers often moving back and forth between CG and real several times during the shot. This also allowed for the timing to be varied. “And in terms of timing, it was Ryan himself who actually often drove this and say, ‘Oh, this needs to be faster, or slower’,” recalls Acri. “It was nice to see his expertise and his knowledge in terms of comedy and timing.” One would doubt there are many people in the world that would argue with Ryan Reynolds on comic timing. “Even with car accidents or explosions, in some shots, he thought it might look too much like a real accident, and he would say make it tumble 2 or 3 more times, and then he would say, ‘Ok now it is a bit more of a comic situation’. It was really nice to have collaborators who are just really, really that good to work with!”
But the real fan favorites were the references and cameos involving Captain America with Chris Evans, the Hulk, and Star Wars. ILM was perfectly positioned to provide these iconic moments. “We wanted to make sure that we didn’t let down any of the film fans or the gamers with any of the references,” comments Acri. “We did all kinds of work trying to understand each item and making sure that we were close to the original as possible. So we spent quite a good chunk of time making sure that we replicated each item as close as possible to the originals from the Marvel Cinematic Universe or the Lucasfilm assets, such as the lightsaber”
The team was based in Singapore, and the visual effects were rendered with RenderMan using the Foundry’s Katana. While most of the work was done in Singapore, 50 or 60 shots were done by the new ILM Sydney facility which had just come online when the film was in post-production. The Sydney crew helped with a range of shots including solving background replacement for the Digi-doubles with paint, texture, and modelling work. Michael Allen led the comp supervisor in Sydney and he dovetailed with Walter Gilbert, Primary Compositing Supervisor in Singapore. They both coordinated this fight scene work with Nicholas Tey, lead on the Digit-doubles as the Singapore-based Modelling Lead and Katrina Tung, and the Singapore Texture/Paint Lead. Because ILM started in late 2019, soon after Christmas at the start of 2020, ILM had to move to a distributed team model due to COVID. Acri is full of praise for the hard-working ILM Technology crew “who accommodated all our requests and acted very swiftly to keep us working.”
Halon was involved from early in the planning of the film. Ryan McCoy was Halon’s Senior VFX supervisor and Zachary Wong was the Post Supervisor. In the early tests, the company was asked to explore the look of the game section of the story within the film. With years of Epic UE4 experience, the company was well placed to provide the most cutting-edge game engine visuals. As it happened, these visuals were effectively too good, and the creative team decided to make the game graphics more obviously from a video game, to avoid the problem of some people mistaking these game visuals as poor high-end VFX. In addition to the standard game look, the company also explored real-world game glitches. For example, there is a real-world glitch in a version of Red Dead Redemption where the user can end up driving their boat underneath the entire game map. The trick became with many of these game references was finding ways for Free City to glitch, but in a way that would seem story motivated, and not a technical fault. Otherwise, the visual effect could feel like a mistake versus a creative choice. In the early days, finding that balance involved a lot of work. Halon’s team also created many reference reels of crazy stunts that players do in different games, along with the assortment of strange glitches and other inspirations to help brainstorm and build the action and the humor.
The meta nature of the film required multiple layers of subtly different digital cinematography, that extended to more than just a game inside the film. This was particularly the case as Blue Shirt Guy becomes aware of his presence and role in the game. There were also blocking, cinematic framing, and camera motion aspects to explore in the game. For example, when Guy puts on the glasses, the world is shown via a first-person shooter game modality, where the lens is wide and the camera pivots or pans quite freely.
The team had to handle both technical previz, such as the opening scene and the creative previz, which was built up and out from the script. For example, there were only a few lines in the script describing the construction site chase which first reveals to Guy many of the anti-physics opportunities afforded his character.
The construction site sequence did not even have extensive storyboarding, but rather the Halon team jumped in and started working with the creative team to explore both what was possible and how to time it. Unlike many such action sequences that Halon have done over their many years in the business, this sequence needed to be dramatic and funny, and comic timing has its own demanding requirements. The team went through a lot of iterations figuring out all the action and comic beats.
“A lot of the comedic timing was also just throwing ideas at the wall and seeing what sticks!” comments Grant Olin, Halon’s onset supervisor. “For the construction site sequence, we probably prevized 15 or 20 gags that aren’t in the movie, because, often you just try things out, and maybe it’s funny when you’re sitting down and pitching it, but then when you put it up on the screen you need to just pick the best stuff.”
Free Guy was also different from other films the team has recently completed due to the complexity of the technical previz. The opening sequence was extremely complex and involved a robotic arm which was both highly complex and potentially dangerous.
Halon handled key previz for sections of the film. They were also on location in Boston, and Olin, Halon’s onset supervisor, managed the last previz sequences from there. On location, Halon worked closely with Swen Gillberg, who supervised the production’s visual effects, and the film’s DOP George Richmond, to assist with virtual location scouting for previz measurements. The production also took advantage of Halon’s virtual location scout services which calculated and visualized the location-specific sunlight trajectory for the time and date of the shoot. For example, in one scene Reynold’s character has to run out from Free City on a bridge, and then the world effectively spins around and ends up right back where he started. “Swen and George came up with this idea of sticking Ryan on a little turntable,” recalls Olin. “And so, the three of us sat there and had to figure out where exactly the sun would be on this day, in Boston, in June – to figure out how to put a treadmill down and move the camera to feel like it’s just a normal camera tracking around him.”
The opening shot was one of the less flexible and most technical previz sequences, which involved an extremely powerful long robotic camera arm. “The robot arm was a big concern for us. We didn’t want to smash a camera into the back of Ryan’s head going 30 miles an hour,” remarks Olin. “On some of these more technical sequences there was less room for improv comedy – but that being said, Ryan was obviously closely involved generally. And he’s an idea machine that just shows up and he’ll riff on anything you can give him to play with.”
The opening shot was filmed as seven different shots in downtown Boston. Halon had to break the shot into something that was filmable as it was shot as a combination of plate photography in downtown Boston, along with some plates on a green screen. “Free Guy is the only movie I’ve ever worked on where I had to spend the day sitting down with the key grip to go over what kind of gear he thinks he’s going to need since he had to get the crane moving down the street at this certain speed to then hook up with something that we’re doing on a robot arm,” comments Olin.
Once the film was being edited, Halon provided postviz around the opening sequence, combining multiple plates into one continuous action sequence to introduce Ryan Reynolds’ character. Halon used primarily UE4 and Maya for the previz and postviz. Over the years the company has developed a set of tools for ’round tripping’ assets, cameras, and animations. But the team is extremely keen to work with UE5, and its more plausible lighting and increased model capabilities. Taylor Assere and the other senior visualization artists working in Maya were directly outputting camera move designs from their technical previz, especially for the opening scene where the camera is following them as the car does a 360, with actor Channing Tatum firing a rocket launcher and blowing up a bunch of police cars behind him. That was shot on a rotating motion base with a robotic camera arm on a large section of track. Taylor and the team in Halon’s LA office had to track the practical shot from Boston and then stitch that into the original previz. From this, they had to figure out how to make a camera on the robot arm essentially push in and pull out, so that it feels like it’s a camera on screen that flies in and flies over the hood of a car. All while doing a 360 spin and ending up with the car driving away into the distance. Taylor worked with a very accurate model of the inertia profile of the robot arm. Halon actually got a digital rig from the robot arm team that had alarms built into it, so that if Halon’s proposed camera move was too fast, it would flash red. This meant that they spent a couple of months before the shoot going back and forth, trying to figure out how to design the shot inside the robot arms constraints. Taylor worked out how to balance the movement of the arm with the movement of the base that the car was on to safely ‘cheat’ an apparent speed that was beyond the raw specs of the robot arm. Olin recalls that “when we got to the day of shooting this shot, the VFX supervisor just looked at me as if to say: ‘Is that what it was supposed to do?’ And it was – but we probably re-engineered how that particular robotic arm flew in and out possibly 60, 70 times, just trying different things to work before we arrived on set.”
Olin was on set in Boston for four months. Halon worked on the film for a total of 5 months, from February until July 2019. The film was massively delayed from general release due to COVID-19.