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It’s Game On for Digital Domain’s ‘Free Guy’ VFX

Leading visual effects studio delivered 89 digital environments, 87 gameplay shots, and 347 VFX shots on Shawn Levy’s comedy adventure starring Ryan Reynolds as a bank teller who discovers he’s a background player in an open-world video game.

What if Grand Theft Auto was made into a live-action movie and a background character became sentient?  Filmmaker Shawn Levy (Night at the Museum) and actor Ryan Reynolds have come up with one scenario in Free Guy, their new film about a bank teller who discovers he’s a background player in an open-world video game, which to date has grossed more than $332 million worldwide. Taking charge of the adventure comedy’s visual effects was Swen Gillberg (Captain America: Civil War), who gained extensive MCU VFX experience working at Digital Domain, where he began his career as a digital artist. As one of the vendors hired for the project, Digital Domain delivered 89 digital environments, 347 visual effects shots, and 87 gameplay shots. “Our shot count wouldn’t lead you to think that we had that many different things to do but it felt like a character or asset per shot,” notes Liz Bernard, animation supervisor, Digital Domain.  “People enjoyed that because there wasn’t a lot of repetitious work.”

As was the case on countless VFX projects, the pandemic forced a production lockdown. For Digital Domain, it was right in the middle of animation production. “We had a slow week [getting everyone setup to work remotely from home] and then boom! right back at it again,” recalls Bernard. “It was a nice thing to have a busy production like that to distract all of us during those couple of scary weeks in the beginning.”  The animation team was kept busy creating 258 individual rigs. “Those were for everything from a tank, helicopters, and cop cars to Ryan Reynolds and Channing Tatum,” she adds. “We had 53 characters on this show.” Noting Digital Domain has a basic rig for bipedal characters, she continues, “We were riffing on the genman rig for all of the humanoid characters. We have something similar for cars with built-in suspension and tire squash as well as a rig for helicopters.  The deformations had to look good out-of-the-box because we didn’t do a ton of character effects like cloth simulations on top.”     

Levy’s mandate was for VFX based on realistic physics. “They wanted to establish the look of Free City, the game, by the visuals rather than the style of the action,” Bernard says.  “We explored a number of different types of video games to figure out what the gameplay stuff should look like.  We thought of doing something more like Fortnite, which would have meant a different style of animation, but settled on Grand Theft Auto with more colors.  Because we ended up there, the filmmakers were interested in making sure that everything still felt realistic; that said, we did punch-up some of the action with funny stunts that aren’t realistic per se but were fun to animate.  I learned about the wrestling move known as the piledriver during the Dude fight.  The challenge was keeping all of the movement based in physics but still funny.  We had such great reference from Ryan Reynolds and Channing Tatum.  Many of the motion capture actors we used for background stunts were really into this show.  We got fantastic performances and just had to plus it from there.”

Environmental builds were constructed for both a real and video game city.  “We did the four-minute opening oner shot where BadAss [Channing Tatum] comes whizzing by the Free Guy logo, parachutes into his car, and drives through Free City, where mayhem and car crashes are happening everywhere,” states Bernard.  “It was shot in Boston and they took all of this array footage with drones. We were trying to piece together big sections, and in the process, realized certain things had to be replaced as CG elements.  It was quite an undertaking especially towards the end as the car crashes get crazier.  Pedestrians were in the way where we wanted a car to crash into a light pole, so they needed to be painted out and extra people added elsewhere.”       

“The stuff with the gameplay was quite a challenge because we had so many different assets, and we also had to animate something that was then going to be shrunk down, and stuck on a screen at an angle, maybe with a person walking in front of it” Bernard continues. “You had to keep all of that in mind to make sure that the story was coming through.” Much of the work centred around establishing aesthetics. “It took a long time to develop what the shaders should look like, and how the skin should appear on the same character in that world,” Bernard says while also noting “the style of punching up certain comedic bits in the animation that was a lot of fun to do.” 

It goes without saying that comedy always relies on proper timing. “Shawn Levy did such a nice job of pulling performances, even from the background characters, so we had great reference,” Bernard explains. “In many cases, our gameplay shots were meant to be recreations of a scene that had already happened in the realistic version of the game.  In some cases, there was only previs where then had to finesse the animation.” One particular classic Looney Tunes character provided ample inspiration. According to Bernard, “In the montage of Ryan getting beaten up all constantly because he’s trying to do good but is failing at it, a character hits his motorcycle, which causes him to go flying, flip over in the air, go splat against a newsstand, and slowly slide down. That was a very Wile E. Coyote moment. It was great to animate that!”                          


With so much activity taking place in the background, it was important to avoid visual confusion.  “A fair amount of time was spent on setting up animation comps,” explains Bernard.  “We would take renders of our animation full-screen and a small group of people would shrink them down, put them onto the screen, and comp them into the shot in a rough way so that we could make sure that if Ryan Reynolds was delivering an important line, no one was walking in front of him at that moment.  We had to incorporate graphic temps [by another vendor] into our animation to make sure that they understood what the shot would look like at the end, even if it wasn’t all final elements.”

Late in shot production, a line spoken by Channing Tatum had to be changed. “We didn’t have great reference of him delivering the line,” states Bernard. “We tried our best to animate it, but it wasn’t quite working out because we hadn’t developed the rig to speak a lot in other shots.  We ended up doing a first pass of animation and then Charlatan [proprietary facial manipulation system] stuff got layered on top of the animation. It’s an interesting black box that involves machine learning. Basically, you take a fully CG character, animate the performance that you want, pump in all of the training data into the Charlatan system, it spits back out the same performance, and you take certain elements of that performance and layer it on top of the animation to get a more realistic look.  Then we had to make it look more like the gameplay we were making for other parts of the show.  Certain parts of the face had to have a simpler texture than if we were trying to do a realistic version.”     

Stunts were bigger and more ridiculous in the gameplay scenes, such as the morphing building.  “One of the first tasks was the construction site sequence, which provided an opportunity for Digital Domain to test the digital double for Guy, portrayed by Ryan Reynolds,” notes Bernard.  “We had good previs from our team in Los Angeles, which the client liked a lot. But there were still continuity issues that arose in the edit, and we had to animate all those different pieces. There were platforms flying by, a staircase getting built while the characters were running up it, porta potties flying around, and spools of wire; we were trying to manipulate in an interesting way all kinds of stuff that you would find on a construction site, as well as provide a path for the characters to go up the building.  The director made a good choice by putting it in a construction site because everything was concrete grey. You have Guy in his blue shirt, the pink bunny, and the cop in black, so it was easy to keep track of where the characters were even though the environment was complex.” 

Bernard concludes, “There is an Easter egg shot of Ryan Reynolds getting kicked in the family jewels by his wife Blake Lively. We had some reference from them and animated it as close as we could to reference, which was really funny.  Ryan is a walking cartoon so there was no need to improve on that!”

Trevor Hogg's picture

Trevor Hogg is a freelance video editor and writer best known for composing in-depth filmmaker and movie profiles for VFX Voice, Animation Magazine, and British Cinematographer.