The first time Shawn Levy was approached to direct “Free Guy,” he declined.
“Guy,” a non-playable video game protagonist (Ryan Reynolds), gets a new lease on life after falling in love with a fellow player named Molotov Girl (Killing Eve’s Jodie Comer), is set in the lawless, hyper-violent Free City of the “Grand Theft Auto” games.
Later, Ryan Reynolds contacted Shawn Levy, the director of “Night at the Museum,” after receiving the script, unaware that Levy had been considered for the director’s chair in the past.
“I didn’t tell Ryan that I’d already read it,” Levy confessed. “I’m sorry.” In response, she asked me “Why are you contacting me?'” I’m not a hardcore gamer.’ Ryan says ‘[Let’s] use a video game basis but develop a movie that is not just for gamers. Let’s develop a new ‘Truman Show,’ a movie about personal knowledge and strength and the very realistic notion that you may exist in the background or you can step forward to be noticed and influence change.’”
Levy agreed, and enlisted production designer Ethan Tobman and VFX supervisor Swen Gillberg to help fill in the gaps in his knowledge. “Literally I was getting suggestions for jokes, Easter eggs, camera moves, story ideas, VFX ideas and stunt ideas from everybody,” Levy added. “The best idea always won in this culture.”
“Shawn’s incredibly interested and I think that’s what makes him a terrific storyteller,” said Tobman. “He wants to surround himself with individuals who pitch ideas and he’ll take suggestions from a PA, intern or his designer, DP or studio head and give them equal gravitas.”
Levy, Tobman and Gillberg recently spoke with The Times on the labour it takes to design three radically different universes for “Free Guy.”
The aesthetic of the three worlds examined in the video — Free City, the real world, and gameplay — was one of the first decisions made by the group. “I understood early on that I needed to construct three very separate worlds and that I needed strong aesthetic constraints for each,” said Levy. Early on, we decided Free City would have a minimalist aesthetic with a deep focus and symmetrical composition.
On the other hand, a more limited colour palette and a variety of camera formats, lenses, and operating methods were used to show the real world. “We wanted to develop incredibly strict criteria so that you knew from the first frame of one that you were no longer in the other,” said Tobman. Anamorphic lenses and muddled compositions were used to simulate the real-world conditions of shooting in the real world. There was also a constant drizzle. This is an extremely complicated situation, as Tobman explained, with five shades of grey. In addition, “living is a bit complicated and depressing” there.
Levy remarked that the gameplay “was the hardest part.” “We did a number of versions. Whereas the movie might be more ‘GTA’-inspired, the look of the gameplay hews more to ‘Fortnite’ in its aesthetic and amount of stylization than any other video game reference.”
“We first started out quite photoreal and we realised that you couldn’t separate what was on the display from the live action,” said Gillberg. In other words, we took a new approach and at times made the gameplay seem quite cartoony. “. The public didn’t seem to care about Guy, so we went back to a more realistic but stylized design akin to “Grand Theft Auto” or “Call of Duty.”
“Those were kind of the key components of what we would call the look bible,” Levy added. “And I’m fairly delighted that no matter how many times you show the movie, there’s never any mistake what universe you’re viewing. I suppose that’s our visual rules doing the work for us.”
Calling in the Experts
During pre-production, the group established a think tank firing out ideas, playing “tonnes” of video games and referencing various movies before coming to a consensus on the aesthetic of Free City.
“I’m a gamer usually, but I ended up playing video games completely differently in prep,” said Tobman. “I wanted to see what was going in the deep background, following non-playable characters for the whole game. I’d bypass the main plot and go directly for the subplot. But I also started going crazy on YouTube, looking at mistakes and video bloopers.”
While working on “Ready Player One,” video game designer and code writer Mike Mika served as a consultant to Levy, and the two spent time together on YouTube and Twitch watching video games, even more obscure experiential ones. “They’re what’s termed fishbowl games where the purpose is not to kill, level up or acquire vehicles and weaponry but to watch the digital environment evolve,” he said.
He also leaned heavily on Charlie Lehmer, a “big lovable gaming nerd” on the visual effects crew.
“I’ve made 12 movies and Swen’s done ‘Avengers’ so we’re extremely seasoned grownups,” said Levy. “And [but] every time I would look at a sequence, I would go ‘Charlie, what do you think?’ Suddenly, Charlie resembled that pesky intern with a megaphone. A vote of confidence from a member of the gaming community like Charlie would have given me the assurance I needed that we had nailed it.
The film was shot almost entirely in Boston with some reshoots taking place in L.A. The interiors were constructed in airport hangars or on soundstages large enough to fit the massive sets required for the films. “I think we were pretty careful about using Boston for its famed Brutalist architecture for the outer world and its more provincial, bucolic, Federalist architecture for the world inside the game,” Tobman added.
There were a slew of other cities that inspired the real-world aesthetic of “The Dark Knight,” such as Seattle, Seoul, Tokyo, Pittsburgh, and Christopher Nolan’s “Gotham City.” Other influences included the flicks “Brazil” (1985) and the Hal Ashby parody “Being There” (1979). (1979).
When it comes to movies and video games, Tobman says, “I’ve witnessed a trend where video games have really informed and movies are now informing.” Some of the best western cinema noir or Ridley Scott sci-fi come to life when you play Red Dead Redemption or Shadow of the Colossus. These require a great deal of ingenuity and imagination in terms of setting up the world. To create them, they’re utilising the same hardware and software, as well as some of the same personnel.
This unique aspect of video game creation, according to Levy, is heavily influenced by the cinematic medium. “As a result, there’s not really a oneupmanship between the two mediums but a cross-pollination of ideas that have made them better.”
Feats of Engineering
Tobman claims his favourite set is Molotov Girl’s stash house, a set created entirely out of cloth, which was also the most technically hardest to achieve. “How do you light that? What’s the best way to capture that?” asked Tobman. “There’s no wood, metal or structure.”
Instead, the production design team made model renderings out of tracing paper and laser cut 300 pieces of panelling in slightly varying forms to simulate stalagmites. “We literally made a cave out of fabric,” Tobman explained.
In the film’s third act, when Guy faces up against Dude, a much darker and powerful version of himself, Levy says he’s most proud of that sequence. Gillian Gillberg said she knew the man who portrays Dude from the gym she visits in Los Angeles: “We found him on Google and I recognised him from there.”
“In the original draught, Dude was designed to be a mirror image of Guy,” he continued. “Ryan Reynolds was originally envisioned as Dude and Guy. But we didn’t want to have to go through the time that it takes to shoot one actor twice. As a result, Shawn was determined to find a method for Ryan to play against Dude while he shot the shot.
Aaron Reed, the actor who portrayed Dude, was shot using motion capture and in post-production, the crew grafted Reynold’s face onto Reed’s body using the same technique.
The creators took great care to hide many Easter eggs for keen viewers.
“These are people who are imprisoned in a city and don’t realise it therefore there are travel agencies advertising excursions to nowhere where you don’t get off the plane, for rates that you can’t afford,” said Tobman. ‘Sale tomorrow and the day after that.’ ” There are fast food places with happy meals that include grenades and nunchucks and machine weapons. We’re playing with the idea of a parody where we’re commenting on the reality we know today: It’s hyper-violent, hypersexual and excessive.”
Guy’s apartment is another space that’s packed with Easter eggs. Because he’s a video game character, his dwelling is purposefully half-developed.
[Game creators] literally minimised how many terabytes they want to offer his residence,” claimed Tobman. “So his front door has five deadbolts and no knob, his calendar is missing a day and his cabinet contains a bowl and a spoon but no fork or knife because he just eats cereal. So that was an immensely entertaining set to hide Easter eggs in. That flat is truly Guy’s problem personified and externalised.”
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