Justin Cook chats with visual effects supervisor Swen Gillberg about his work on Free Guy, which is now available on Digital, 4k, Blu-ray, and DVD. The following conversation contains spoilers about the film…
This summer, Free Guy became the little movie that could, as it debunked the prevailing narrative that nothing original was breaking out at a pandemic-affected box office. But if you’ve seen Free Guy, you know nothing about it feels “little” — in fact, it is the movie’s gonzo scale and visual effects ingenuity that undoubtedly contributed to its box office success. Made for around $100 million, while it didn’t have the budget of a Marvel movie, it sure had the massive size of one, and for that, it has VFX Supervisor Swen Gillberg to thank.
The Oscar-nominated VFX guru is no stranger to going big. Look at the man’s resume, just from the past decade alone, and you’ll spot the common thread of him working on boundary-pushing, VFX-heavy blockbusters, from Real Steel to Furious 7 to both Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame.
However, bringing Free Guy’s visuals to life presented a new challenge, unlike any of the aforementioned titles. The movie primarily centers around NPCs in an open-world video game, called Free City, meaning that Gillberg and his team would have to bring the visual relentlessness and elasticity of a video game to the silver screen.
Ahead of Free Guy’s home video release, Flickering Myth spoke to Gillberg about the video games that gave Free City character, the film’s most noteworthy VFX sequences (including a much-talked-about sequence featuring some Avengers-esque imagery), and how he found professional bodybuilder Aaron Reed to play a (more) jacked version of Ryan Reynolds.
How did working on a movie like Free Guy differ from working on another massive scale movie like Furious 7 or even Avengers, which adhere to a more established sense of reality? Movies that, visually, are less cartoonish and don’t break their own rules as much as Free Guy does?
The process was similar, but really just more fun because we had the creative freedom to do whatever we wanted. We would sit in a room and go, “What do you think this shot needs?” — “I think maybe it needs a hot air balloon on fire with a machine gun.” And sure enough, we’d put a hot air balloon with a machine gunner on it. And then, we’d be in a different scene and say, “How about a dinosaur?” — “Yeah, a dinosaur sounds good.” It made every day fun because we didn’t have to stick to a strict script at all.
Can you describe the process of deciding what the in-movie video game would look like, for when we see people playing it on their screens in the real world, and the video games you took inspiration from for deciding on a visual style?
It was a very long process that kept going all the way through post. Initially, we had a very photorealistic-looking version, but we realized that you couldn’t differentiate it from live-action. Then, we went down this heavily more cartoony version which was more similar to Overwatch — we did a combo of Overwatch and Fortnite, but we found that the audience didn’t empathize with the characters in the game. So we then steered it back more to photoreal-ish, but we basically made the characters almost real … and then steered the background towards a stylized Grand Theft Auto look. It was a long process, and we screened it a bunch of times and tried to get everyone’s opinion, and ended up with more of GTA, but with a little bit of a Fortnite vibe to it.
How did you immerse yourself in those aforementioned video games? Did it mean a lot of physically playing Grand Theft Auto or Fortnite?
Yep, we all upped our home consoles and got each console. A lot of playing — watched a lot, a lot of Twitch and YouTube videos. One of the guys who works for me named Charlie Deemer, who is a huge gamer, became our go-to gamer if we weren’t sure if something would play. He was our stamp of approval. We all joked that we needed Charlie’s stamp of approval.
There are so many balls-to-the-wall, insane VFX sequences in this movie. What was the hardest to create and what challenges did it pose?
The opening oner was probably the most difficult and took the longest amount of time. I think we worked on that for probably a year and a half. It was a very huge collaboration. There was every element you can imagine going in there. There was second-unit stunt driving, there was complex motion control — we had a very fast robotic motion-controlled camera that recorded when they were doing the 360. Because it’s in slow-motion, the camera has to move extremely fast and that was all done on a green screen. Some of the cop cars were real, some of them were obviously CG because you can’t blow up everything on the streets of Boston. It took every team to come up with that long sequence and a long time to do it.
Within the first 30 minutes of the movie, we have that sequence and then the construction site sequence, when Guy is being pursued by the in-game police, which almost becomes like an M.C. Escher-esque painting. Can you describe how you formulated that scene?
You’re not too incorrect. There was some Escher in there and there was influence from Fortnite — when you run up stairs and they form under your feet. And there was an Escher scene in Night at the Museum 3, which I worked on with Shawn also, so there was that influence in there, too. With Shawn, it’s always just best idea wins and with this particular one it was great because there was no real rules to follow, so we got to be super creative and have lots of fun.
One of the most talked-about sequences come at the end, when Guy busts out like the Captain America shield, the Hulk hand, the lightsaber, the Fortnite pickaxe, Portal gun, to name a few. How did you go about adapting those iconic items from other IPs into the world of Free City?
For the [Captain America shield] and Hulk hand, we had to get permission to use those, and once we got permission, we matched them exactly. It was really an homage to [Marvel movies], so we wanted to make them just like the ones we see in the Marvel movies. And then, the other ones we would riff — the Portal gun isn’t exactly like the Portal gun. The Fortnite pickaxe is one we got permission for, so we pretty much matched the pickaxe as best we could. A lot of that’s for good comedy and Shawn and Ryan are great for coming up with awesome comedic things.
What was the process for creating Dude and melding Ryan Reynolds’ face with a different body type?
Ryan wanted to have Dude be a big huge muscle-bound version of himself. Chris, our second-unit director, I believe he Googled “giant big dude,” and we found a picture of [professional bodybuilder Aaron Reed], and I recognized him from the gym I go to. And we found his agent and hired him, and Aaron was just fantastic. He was such a great guy and a good sport and we had so much fun doing it. Earlier on I did some test with a company called Lola, and it’s a process where Ryan sits in a dome and we record his face from a bunch of different angles, and then we take that imagery and 3D geometry and we stick it on Aaron’s face. So we did a lot of testing and pre-production and found that it worked pretty well and went for it.
How much of this movie was worked on during the pandemic, and how did the pandemic affect your workflow as a team?
We had just finished reshoots when the pandemic started and we all had our offices on the Fox lot. And we were about to get shut down, but we pushed real hard to not get shut down and took a couple of weeks to move everybody into their homes. It was a big technology challenge that we did, but it worked very well. So basically, we finished the entire movie from home. It was a challenge, but it was a good one and I’m glad we overcame it because it kept a lot of people employed and at home and safe. It was good timing because if we had been shooting they would have shut us down. We literally posted the entire movie during the pandemic.
A sequel to Free Guy has already been announced. Are you involved in that project, and if so, can you give any hints about how we can expect to see the world of Free City change in the next movie, now that Free City is no longer a GTA-like playground?
No spoiler alerts yet! We haven’t really started getting super into it, and we’re really not allowed to talk about it just yet, but it’s coming and we’re all super excited about it.
Many thanks to Swen Gillberg for taking the time for this interview.