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

The line between digital creations and real-world experiences gets blurrier every day — particularly in Hollywood. Director Shawn Levy’s 2021 film Free Guy embraced that shrinking divide by following the adventures of Guy, a jovial character in a Grand Theft Auto-style multiplayer game who becomes self-aware and decides to become a hero and save his virtual world from deletion.

The film casts Ryan Reynolds as Guy, who embarks on a quest to level up by doing good deeds instead of engaging in the mindless destruction the game encourages. The film blends live-action characters and sets with a myriad of digital environments and overlays to make the wild world of Free City inhabited by Guy feel authentic while simultaneously retaining the no-limits experience the fictional game offers its players.

Tasked with maintaining that careful balance was Levy’s visual effects supervisor on the film, Swen Gillberg, who led a team of visual effects studios in designing and implementing a wide range of elements — from featured and supporting characters to physics-defying environments and a neon rainbow of in-game graphics. Among the studios contributing to the spectacular visual effects in Free Guy was Digital Domain, which previously worked with Marvel to bring Thanos to life in Avengers: Infinity War and Avengers: Endgame. The studio’s VFX supervisor on the film, Nikos Kalaitzidis, spoke to Digital Trends about his team’s work on the film.

Digital Trends: What were some of the big elements you and your team worked on?

Nikos Kalaitzidis: One of the biggest scenes was one we called “The Badass Opener”…

Well, with a name like that, you need to elaborate!

Right? It was the opening scene, and it had a lot of different levels. It’s a couple thousand frames, and it was initially a single shot from beginning to end as Badass, who’s played by Channing Tatum, free-dives into Free City. He soars down through the streets, lands in a convertible — which we designed digitally — and there’s another character, Beauty, in the car. He steals the car and then roars off through the streets, chased by police cars, helicopters, everything. He blows up half the stuff chasing him — motorcycles, police cars, et cetera — then pulls out a bazooka, blows up more police cars, and just takes off. That’s when the camera pans over, into a building, and we’re introduced to Guy, the main protagonist of Free Guy, played by Ryan Reynolds.

It really set the tone of what the city is and what the film is going to be. And it also makes it clear that this is a take on a Grand Theft Auto-type world.

What were some of the challenges in creating that scene? How did it evolve over time?

Well, the previs [pre-visualizing is a way to digitally map out a scene before it’s created by the visual effects studio] by Swen Gillberg, the film’s overall visual effects supervisor, was done really well. We were really excited to work on it, and there was lots of setup before we finally shot the whole thing. We eventually got it back [from Gillberg and Levy], put it all together, and showed it to the filmmakers. And then we looked at it together and everyone was like, “Yeah, it’s a little boring.”

So after all all that, we had to think about what else we could do. That’s when we became really creative and started to throw the kitchen sink at it. What kind of gags can we throw in there to increase the excitement and make it funnier? That’s actually when the whole idea of a Grand Theft Auto-like environment really came into play. What would that city be like? We threw in more helicopters, more explosions, and a bank truck that smashes into a car and all this money comes out, just to start. And then we just kept on coming up with more ideas, with everyone pitching them to Shawn and his team, and they loved everything we threw at them.

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

This film presents an interesting dilemma for VFX, in that you’re creating characters in a world that’s supposed to be not quite real — unlike most films, where you’re trying to create worlds that feel indistinguishable from reality. Did that present a challenge?

Well, we actually wanted it to look perfectly real, but that’s really difficult to do when you have some of these things going on and impossible camera moves. On set, they would occasionally record a performance and you could hear people say, “Well, it’s just a game.” And it was like, “No! That’s not the right attitude.” It’s a game, sure, but everything needs to look photo-real to pull it off.

The problem with that sort of thing sometimes is that as much as you can make it photo-real, the camera moves happen in a way that defies physics, so the audience knows it’s CG anyways. That presents a challenge, too, in trying to create a camera move that feels real but can’t exist in the real world because of physics. As a viewer, when you see something like that, you start to subconsciously believe everything else has to be CGI, too. And that pulls you out of it.

Is there a particular scene where that became a real challenge?

There was one sequence that we worked on set in a construction site.

Oh, the chase through the construction site as the environment changes around the in-game characters? That one had a real M.C. Escher feel to it.

It’s funny you mention Escher, because one of Shawn Levy’s sequences in a Night of the Museum movie had an Escher sequence, too. But for this particular sequence, we were trying to present two characters chasing another character in a world that is defying physics. We’re trying to make this look as photo-real as possible by making sure the characters are running and performing as physically as possible, but everything around them doesn’t obey the rules of physics. In that case, it’s really hard to present to the audience that this is real. But our job is to make the shot as photo-real as possible.

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

There’s an Inception-like quality to what you have to do in the film, creating a real world within a game world that looks like a game world to everyone outside it, as well as the characters playing in it, but not to the characters living in it …

Yeah, even though we’re inside Free City and we have to make it look photo-real all around, we have this other componentm which is that when we look at what’s going on in the game world on someone’s monitor from the real world, it’s gameplay. We’re representing a video game like it’s the real world, even though what you’re seeing on a monitor in the real world is a game-like visual. I always compared this whole scenario to a set of Russian nested dolls.

That seems fitting, too.

There was a particular sequence we worked on in the multiplayer lounge — that’s where different players go and exchange weapons and socialize. They have these big TV screens there where they can see what’s going on in the game. What’s funny about the scene is that Guy sees himself in-game, and even though Guy is photo-real at that point, looking at himself in the game, it’s all taking place in someone’s monitor, because it’s video from the game. So it’s gameplay within gameplay, seen from someone’s monitor. So, that’s why I’ve always called this relationship between all the perspectives Russian nested dolls.

Initially, we had to figure all of that out, too — when he looks up at the monitor, should it be in-game gameplay or photo-real gameplay? There were a lot of those questions we had to answer with the filmmakers.

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

Is there a VFX shot or element you’re particularly proud of in the film?

I really like the frozen-moment shot. There were two different shots in the film involving frozen action, with everyone glitching out in one way or another. There was one when Taika Waititi’s character was blowing up the servers toward the end of the movie, and then another one where they rebooted the game. We worked on the earlier shot, and had a lot of conversations with Swen to figure out how to make it look different than the glitch at the end. Because it’s a reboot, we had to come up with a different kind of look — something similar, but completely different.

In the scene, they reboot the machine in order to reset Guy’s memory and send his A.I. back to just being an NPC. We call it the frozen moment because everyone freezes inside the multiplayer lounge when they reboot. Guy stands up and doesn’t know what’s happening, then walks outside and sees everyone and everything frozen. All of the chaos that happens in Free City is stopped and starts to glitch. And eventually everything fades to white.

Where did the inspiration for how to represent the reboot in-game come from?

I remembered going to an art exhibit in New York City about artificial intelligence put together with photography of the city. They fed it into a machine and they used A.I. to come up with a new city that would morph different buildings into other buildings. The art installation was done by Artechouse. It really inspired me, and we used that as reference. Our compositors and FX supervisor came up with a technique called “data moshing,” where they took a lot of different components and renders and gave it a pixelated look — like a 1980s digital look — blended with some very complex and sophisticated elements.

That’s how we came up with the look for that reboot scene, and I’m pretty proud of it, too. It looked really neat and original, and afterward, we were like, “We only did it for one scene! How cool would it be if we could’ve used it for other shots?” But it is what it is, and it was a really special shot.

An early visual effects scene from Free Guy.

You’ve mentioned the compartmentalization of shots in this film a lot, with different VFX vendors working on different elements. Does that get complicated?

Throughout the process of working on it, we were sharing the look of how we’re doing certain things with different [VFX] vendors, and we kind of fed off each other in the film. It just feels like there’s more of a collaboration today between different vendors rather than competition, like it was decades ago. Now it’s like, “Hey, let’s share information and data and come up with better ideas, because we each have five, six, or seven hundred shots to complete. So how can we help one another?” I feel like it’s a different mindset in today’s landscape of visual effects.

That’s great to hear, especially since there’s so much to see in every shot — from player characters walking into walls and trolling each other to the digital symbols and signage everywhere. Was that layered over your work by other teams?

That’s another thing that Swen brought to the table on this movie: The importance of graphics. The graphics that [VFX studio] Cantina did were amazing. We’ve been working with them for years, but they really made the graphics a signature element of Free City in the film. I look at all the before and afters we did, but when I finally got to see Free Guy in the theater, it was like I was seeing my shots for the first time — because they put in so many graphics on top of everything to give it that game look, and it really put it over the edge. It added so much more eye candy to the visual effects in the film.

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

There were so many cameos and fun player characters to see in the film, too. Did your team work on any of them?

Yeah, we had to create just under 50 gameplay characters in the film. When we were [motion capturing] Ryan at our studio, he brought over his daughter, who must have been four or five years old at the time. They wanted to get her into it as a gameplay character, so we filmed her as as much as we could to create a digital double of her. In the scene when Guy sees a little girl crossing the street and saves her from a big truck, that was her.

There was another scene where you see Guy getting beaten up in the multiplayer lounge. There’s a montage of him getting stepped on and beaten up, and at one point he gets kicked in the nuts by a woman in a schoolgirl outfit. That was [Reynolds’ wife] Blake Lively. They acted it out on their iPhones, since it was during COVID time, and sent it to us. We mimicked it animation-wise and put it in.

Another cameo was actually Shawn Levy himself. We called his character “Hot Nuts” in the film. He’s a vendor on the street selling hot nuts, and this big blimp on fire crashes down and you see Shawn Levy running towards the camera. [It was] just really quick cameo, but it was a lot of fun. There was just never enough humor or gags to put in there.

That seems like a ridiculously fun project to be a part of.

Shawn Levy was so inviting to family members and friends on set. He’s so animated and friendly to everybody in a really great, supportive way. It’s really great to have people like that who are not just really creative, but want people to participate in what they do. So hats off to him, you know?

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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