With Gemini Man, Ang Lee is out to change the game. To guide cinema into the future and make us see movies in a new light. However, the film’s technology is so advanced that most moviegoers won’t see the movie in its intended format, as the majority of theaters don’t have the required tools to project the film the way it’s meant to be seen.
As noted by Atom Tickets’ insightful explainer, the film was shot in 3D and 4K at 120 frames per second, a far higher rate than the usual 24 frames per second for typical movies. Lee aimed to make a movie that feels as fluid and immersive as a video game while also advancing 3D cinematic technology.
In a way, Lee was the perfect director for the job. He’s spent his entire career defying Hollywood norms. But bringing Gemini Man to the screen was arduous. Several talented filmmakers were linked to this movie before Lee only to step aside shortly after because the task seemed impossible.
Gemini Man was conceived in 1997 by screenwriter Darren Lemke, whose credits now include Shazam! and the Goosebumps movies. Tony Scott was originally attached to direct the film for Disney back then, with Harrison Ford and Chris O’Donnell reportedly set to play the older and younger versions of the main character, respectively.
In the early 2000s, however, Disney decided that they wanted to have one actor play both versions of the character. In order to accomplish this, the company’s now-defunct animation studio The Secret Lab was tasked with creating a younger digital avatar of a human performer.
As documented by Cartoon Brew, Disney’s desire to create a fully-realized digital character stemmed from a canceled Jim Carrey movie, surprisingly. In the late ‘90s, the actor was set to voice a fish in Warner Bros.’ proposed remake of The Incredible Mr. Limpet, and the studio’s goal was to have the CG character’s face closely resemble Carrey’s own handsome features.
Modeler Hiroki Itokazu was working at Warner Bros. during the film’s early testing phases. During the process, he constructed a model of Carrey’s head and used anatomy textbooks to create human facial muscles for it. The rigorous process saw Itokazu work tirelessly until he had created model shapes for all of the actor’s facial expressions and characteristics.
To bring the portrait model to life, animation was used to manipulate the various facial muscles and characteristics. The technique, which became known as ‘Hirokimation,’ was quite groundbreaking for its time, but Warner Bros. was dissatisfied with the test results and decided not to move ahead with the project.
Yet Walt Disney Feature Animation’s Jinko Gotoh — a producer on the early 2000s iteration of Gemini Man — was impressed by the technique, and he recruited Itokazu to come on board and help Disney try to bring their own movie to life.
Disney’s tried to recreate a performance from a real human being — Price Pethel — as a CG avatar. To do this, the actor was filmed performing various expressions to generate a 3D model. Itokazu then made his own models to create the actor’s facial muscles and expressions, and the team used motion capture to blend it all together.
To create a younger version of the character, they reapplied elements of Pethel’s performance to a CG character, which could then be adjusted using their technological wizardry whenever needed. The results were impressive, but they weren’t strong enough to convince the House of Mouse to greenlight the ambitious movie.
In the years that followed, Curtis Hanson and Joe Carnahan were in talks to direct the feature. Numerous actors — Mel Gibson, Jon Voight, Nicolas Cage, Brad Pitt, Tom Cruise, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Sean Connery — were rumored to play the main role. The script was periodically rewritten as well, yet the film remained stuck in development hell without much focus for 20 years.
Aside from a Carnahan sizzle reel featuring Eastwood (see below), news coming out of the Gemini Man camp was scarce until 2016, when Skydance Media acquired the rights from Disney and recruited Lee to helm the project. The rest is history.
We can only assume that the technology required to make Gemini Man wasn’t up to Disney’s standards for too long and they eventually lost interest in the movie. After all, the company has since mastered the art of creating digital avatars of actors and de-aging performers, as evidenced by Tron: Legacy and a handful of Marvel movies.
Despite Disney’s unsuccessful efforts to make Gemini Man, it’s still worth acknowledging the work of Itokazu and his colleagues. Their experiments are among the earliest examples of creators experimenting with digital de-aging techniques, and without these pioneers, the medium wouldn’t be as advanced as it is today.
Of course, what’s the point of technological progress if it can’t be fully appreciated by general people? Theater chains and home entertainment systems have some evolving to do if Gemini Man is ever going to be seen the way it’s supposed to be.
At the same time, this movie could be the needle-pusher that inspires a new wave of impressive technological breakthroughs that will make watching movies even more exciting in the coming years. For that reason alone, Gemini Man’s long journey to the screen was worth the wait.