How visual effects shaped Free Guy’s GTA-inspired world

In Hollywood, the line between digital creations versus real-world experiences is becoming blurrier by the day. Shawn Levy’s 2021 movie Free Guy explores that shrinking gap by following Guy, a cheerful character in a Grand Theft Auto-style multiplayer video game. Guy becomes self-aware and decides he will become a hero to save his virtual world.

Ryan Reynolds plays Guy in the film. He sets out to improve his game by engaging in good deeds rather than the mindless destruction that the game encourages. The film combines live-action sets and characters with digital environments and overlays. Guy’s wild world in Free City feels authentic, while still retaining the game’s unlimited possibilities.

Swen Gillberg was Levy’s visual effects supervisor. She managed a team that included visual effects studios and helped to design and implement a variety of elements, including supporting characters and physics-defying environments as well as a neon rainbow in-game graphics. Digital Domain was one of the studios that contributed to the stunning visual effects in Free Guy. This studio previously worked with Marvel to bring Thanos alive in Avengers. Clear Tips spoke with Nikos Kalaitzidis who was the VFX supervisor at the studio.

Question : What were the major elements that you and your team worked upon?

Nikos Kaitzidis: We called it “The Badass Opener “…”. It was one of our most memorable scenes.

You need to be more specific with a name such as

Right? It was the opening scene and had many levels. It has a few thousand frames. At first, it was just one shot. Badass, played by Channing Tatum free-dives into Free City. He soars through the streets and lands in a convertible that we digitally designed. Beauty is also in the car. He then steals the car, and then speeds off, being chased by cop cars, helicopters and everything else. He destroys half of the things chasing him, including police cars and motorcycles. Then he pulls out his bazooka and blows up even more police cars before taking off. The camera pans to Guy, who is played by Ryan Reynolds.

This really sets the tone for the film and the city. It also makes clear that this film is about a Grand Theft Auto-type universe.

What were the biggest challenges when creating this scene? What was the evolution of this scene over time?

Swen Gillberg, film’s visual effects supervisor, did a great job with the previs. It was a great experience to work on, and it took a lot of preparation before we could finally shoot the entire thing. It was eventually returned by Gillberg and Levy. We put it together and presented it to the filmmakers. Then we all looked at it together, and everyone said, “Yeah. It’s a little boring.”

After all this, we started to wonder what else we could do. We got really creative and began to use every tool at our disposal. To make the experience even more fun, what kind of gags could we add? This is when the Grand Theft Auto-like setting was born. How would this city look? To get started, we added more explosions and more helicopters to the mix. We kept coming up with new ideas and everyone pitched them to Shawn and his crew. They loved every idea we put forward.

An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.
A scene from Free Guy.

The film is a unique challenge for VFX because you are creating characters in a world that is not real. This is unlike many films where you try to create worlds that are indistinguishable to reality. This was a challenge.

We wanted it to look real. But that’s hard to do with all the other things and impossible camera moves. They would record performances and sometimes people would say “Well, it’s just another game.” It was like “No!” This is not the right attitude. It’s just a game. But it’s important to make everything look real.

This is because even though you can make it look photo-realistic, the camera moves are often performed in a way that defies physics. The audience will know it’s CG. This presents another challenge in creating a camera movement that feels authentic but cannot exist in the real world due to physics. When you see something like this, as a viewer, you subconsciously believe that everything else must be CGI. This pulls you out.

Was there a specific scene that was a challenge?

One sequence was what we did on a construction site.

The chase through the construction site, as the environment changes around your in-game characters! This one was a true M.C. It had an Escher feel.

Escher is funny because Shawn Levy had a sequence in a Night of the Museum movie that included an Escher sequence. We wanted to show two characters running after each other in a world defying gravity. This sequence should look as real as possible. We want the characters to run and perform as well as possible while the world around them is not following the rules of physics. It’s difficult to show the audience that this is real in that situation. Our job is to make sure the shot looks as real as possible.

An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.
An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.

The film has an Inception-like feel to it. It creates a real world within the game world, which looks just like a world to those outside of it. But it is not to the characters who live in it.

Yes, even though we are in Free City, and have to make it look photorealistic all around, there is another component. This is when we see what’s happening in the game world from the real world. It’s gameplay. Although what you see on the monitor is real-world, it looks just like a videogame. This whole scene was always compared to a collection of Russian nesting dolls.

It seems appropriate, too.

We had a specific sequence that we created in the multiplayer lounge. This is where players can exchange weapons and socialize. There are big TV screens that allow them to see the game’s progress. The funny thing about this scene is Guy can see himself in-game. Even though Guy appears photorealistic at that point, Guy is actually looking at himself in-game. It’s all happening on someone else’s monitor because it’s a video taken from the game. It’s gameplay within the gameplay, as seen through someone’s monitor. This is why I have always called the relationship between all perspectives Russian nested dolls.

We had to work out all that stuff at first. When he looks up at his monitor, is it in-game or photo-real? We had many questions that we had to address with the filmmakers.

An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.
A scene from Free Guy.

Do you have a favorite VFX shot?

The frozen-moment shot is my favorite. Two shots were used in the film that featured frozen action. Everyone glitched out in some way. One shot featured Taika Waititi as her character blowing up servers towards the end of the movie. The second was where they rebooted their game. Swen and I had many conversations about how to make the shot look different from the glitch at the ending. We had to create a new look because it was a reboot. It would be similar but totally different.

They reboot the machine to reset Guy’s memory and send his A.I. Back to being an NPC. It’s called the frozen moment because everyone in the multiplayer lounge freezes when they reboot. Guy stands up, doesn’t know what is happening, and then walks outside to see everyone and everything frozen. Everything stops and begins to glitch in Free City. All of it eventually fades to white.

Where was the inspiration to show the reboot in-game?

I remember going to an art show in New York City that featured artificial intelligence and photography of the city. They fed it into an A.I. machine. They created a city that could transform different buildings into another. Artechouse created the art installation. This was a great inspiration for me and I used it as a reference. The FX supervisor and our compositors came up with “data moshing,” which is a technique that involves taking a lot of components and renders, and giving it a pixelated look. This gives it an 80s digital look mixed with complex and sophisticated elements.

This is how we came up with the look for the reboot scene. I’m proud of it. It was very original and looked great. We were shocked that we only used it for one scene. It would have been so cool if it could be used for other shots. But, it is what it was and it was an amazing shot.

An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.
This film has a lot of compartmentalization, and different VFX vendors are working on different elements. Is that too complicated?We shared the look of different [VFX] vendors throughout the production process, and it was a mutually beneficial relationship that we used in the film. It feels more like there is more collaboration between vendors today than there was a decade ago. It’s now like “Hey, let’s share information, data, and come up with better solutions, since we each have five to six hundred shots to complete.” “So how can we help each other?” This is a new mindset in today’s world of visual effects.

It’s great to hear that, especially as there is so much to see in each shot — from the player characters walking into walls to trolling one another to the digital symbols to signage everywhere. Did other teams layer that over your work?

Swen also brought another aspect to this movie: the importance of graphics. Cantina’s graphics were incredible. Although we have been working with them for many years, they made the graphics an integral part of Free City. It’s amazing to look back at all the before-and-afters, but seeing Free Guy in person was like seeing my shots for the first time. They added so many graphics to everything to give it that “game” look. The visual effects were enhanced by this extra eye candy.

Ryan Reynolds runs down a busy street in a scene from Free Guy.

The film featured many funny player characters and cameos. How did your team work on any of them.

Yes, we had to create less than 50 gameplay characters for the film. Ryan brought his daughter along to our studio when we were motion capturing. She was probably four- or five years old. She was a game character and they wanted her to be involved in it. We filmed her extensively to make a digital duplicate of her. Guy saved a little girl from a truck by filming her crossing the street.

Guy was also beaten up in the multiplayer room. He gets stepped on, beaten up and kicked in his nuts by a girl in a schoolgirl dress. Blake Lively, [Reynolds’ wife], was that. It was COVID time so they acted it out on iPhones and sent it to me. It was animated and we copied it.

Shawn Levy made an additional appearance. In the film, we called him “Hot Nuts”. Shawn Levy is a street vendor selling hot nuts. When a big blimp of fire falls down, he runs towards the camera. It was a very brief cameo but it was great fun. There wasn’t enough humor or gags.

This seems like an incredibly fun project to be part of.

Shawn Levy was so welcoming to his family and friends. Shawn Levy is so friendly and animated. He supports everyone in a great way. It is wonderful to find people like him who aren’t just creative, but also want everyone to be involved in what they do. You should congratulate him.

Shawn Levy’s Free Guy is currently available via on-demand streaming and will arrive on HBO Max and Disney+ in February.


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