Many years after his early films made in Taiwan — “Pushing Hands,” “The Wedding Banquet” and “Eat Drink Man Woman” — director Ang Lee is in a unique place, exploring and implementing new cinematic technologies while remaining interested in humanist themes.
Opening Friday, “Gemini Man” is Lee’s third movie in a row (after “Life of Pi” and “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”) to extend the medium’s technological possibilities. It features a digital version of a young Will Smith playing opposite the real-life, modern-day Will Smith.
Initially “a die-hard film guy,” Lee says he was first pressured to go digital on the San Francisco-shot “Hulk,” due to its intense visual effects.
“You could see the technology starting to improve, but I resisted. I was attached to film,” he says.
On “Life of Pi,” for which Lee won a Best Director Oscar, he realized that film wouldn’t work with the 3D effects he had planned.
Using digital, he discovered the possibility of a higher frame rate, and more information than the traditional 24 frames per second: “It’s very much like life,” he says.
On “Gemini Man,” a great deal of work went into creating the younger Smith character, a clone called Junior, to make him as lifelike as possible.
“If you do it by math and science, the artificial is more real than Will Smith,” he explains. “After all the math is correct, and the lighting and everything matches, sometimes it just doesn’t look like him. It doesn’t look right. I think they call it ‘uncanny valley.’ There’s something in the back of our head, we’re resisting it.”
Finding that intricate balance is “90 percent of our job,” he says.
He had the same problem with Richard Parker, the tiger in “Life of Pi” that shares a lifeboat with the hero. He says it took some nine months for everything to click. He also had option to intercut images of a real tiger with the digital tiger.
“Here, there’s no real young Will Smith for me to cut to,” he smiles.
Images of Smith were borrowed from 1990s movies and reshaped to create a new “performance,” one more sensitive than the swaggering Smith of “Bad Boys,” “Independence Day” and “Men in Black.”
Smith recorded new dialogue for the younger character, which was equalized; the voice was made clearer and the chesty huskiness that comes with age was removed.
The object was to make it sound as if two people — not one actor — were talking.
Pleased with the result, Lee says, “I think there are some shots that are uncannily alive, and it’s quite magical to me.”
After making 14 films in three decades, Lee remains interested in more than just telling stories: “I think a lot of the charm of making movies, at least for me, is to figure something out. How to translate one person’s feeling to another person? How do we think when we see something? Through the lens of our eyes, how do we put it in our heads? What is real and what isn’t?”
“It’s this kind of thing that gets to me,” says Lee, who, at 64, seems wistful and curious, and perhaps overwhelmed by the enormity of the universe and how much there’s left to learn.
“So here I am, still at the beginning,” he says. “I wish I was younger. It takes a lot of energy.”
IF YOU GO
Starring: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong
Written by: David Benioff, Billy Ray, Darren Lemke
Directed by: Ang Lee
Running time: 1 hour, 57 minutes