How The 'Free Guy' Design Team Created Free City
The Free guy design team created free city was the first time Shawn Levy was approached to direct "Free Guy," he declined.
The film is set in Free City, which is similar to the lawless, hyper-violent San Andreas of the "Grand Theft Auto" games, and stars Ryan Reynolds as Guy, a non-playable computer game character who discovers a new passion for life after falling in love with Molotov Girl.
“I think I read about a third of the script and said, ‘You know what? This should probably be some hardcore gamer that you get to direct it,’” Levy told The Times over Zoom. “And I moved on.”
Years later, after receiving the script, Ryan Reynolds approached the director of "Night at the Museum," unknowing that it had been attributed to Levy.
“I didn’t tell Ryan that I had already read it,” Levy uttered. “I said, ‘Why are you calling me? I’m not a hardcore gamer.’ Ryan responded'[Let’s] take a video game premise but make a movie that is not just for gamers. Let’s make a new ‘Truman Show,’ a movie about personal awareness and empowerment and the very relatable notion that you can live in the background or you can step forward to be seen and effect change.’”
Production designer Ethan Tobman and visual effects supervisor Swen Gillberg were brought in by Levy to help fill in the gaps in their skills. “I was literally getting prank ideas, Easter eggs, camera moves, story ideas, visual effects ideas, and stunt ideas from everyone,” Levy said. “This was a culture where the best idea won.”
“Shawn is really curious and I think that's what makes him a great storyteller,” said Tobman. “He wants to surround himself with people who have ideas and will take ideas from a PA, intern or their designer, cinematographer or studio director and give them the same seriousness.”
Levy, Tobman, and Gillberg recently spoke with The Times about the work it took to design three completely different worlds for “Free Guy.”
Jodie Comer as Molotov Girl and Ryan Reynolds as Guy in 20th Century Studios' "Free Guy".
One of the first decisions the team made was to outline what the three worlds explored in the film would look like: Free City, the real world, and the gameplay. “I knew from the beginning that I needed to create these very different worlds and that I needed strict aesthetic parameters for each one,” said Levy. “So from the beginning we chose Ciudad Libre to have a clean look, focused on depth, [and] of very symmetrical composition.”
Every scene that took place in Free City was shot with a large-format camera and spherical lens with a color palette that was bright, pop, and almost animated to create an augmented reality feel. “We were trying to raise against each other,” Tobman said. “So we did a lot of branding and developed two full-block stories with signs that you would never see in the real world.”
On the other hand, the real world was represented with a more restricted palette and different camera formats, lenses, and operating styles. “We wanted to create really specific rules so you would know from the first frame of one that you were no longer in the other,” said Tobman. So the real world was filmed using frame obfuscation, anamorphic lenses, messier compositions, weird reflections, and perpetual rain. "There are five different shades of gray and it's very muddy," Tobman explained. “And life there is a little confusing and depressing.”
The gameplay “was the hardest,” Levy said. “We made a lot of variations. While the movie may be more inspired by 'GTA', the game's visuals are closer to 'Fortnite' in its aesthetic and style level than any other video game reference. "
“Initially, we started out very photorealistic and found it was not possible to separate what was on the monitor from the live-action,” Gillberg said. “So we took a very different direction and sometimes made the game very lively. But we found that the audience didn't feel empathy for Guy, so we reduced him to a more realistic but stylistic aspect, similar to 'Grand Theft Auto' or 'Call of Duty."
“These were the main components of what we would call the Appearance Bible,” said Levy. “And I'm very happy that no matter how many times you show the film, there will never be any confusion about the world you're seeing. I think it's our visual rules that do the work for us. "
During pre-production, the team brought together a group of experts to brainstorm ideas, play “tons” of video games, and reference various movies before making a decision on what the Free City would look like.
“I'm a gamer anyway, but I ended up playing video games very differently in preparation,” Tobman said. “I wanted to see what was going on in the background, following the non-playable characters throughout the game. I would skip the main plot and go straight to the subplot. But I also started going crazy on YouTube, looking for errors and video errors."
Levy spent time watching video games on YouTube and Twitch, including darker experimental games, with video game designer and code writer Mike Mika, who was a consultant for “Ready Player One.” “These are what are called aquarium games, where the objective is not to kill, level up or acquire vehicles and weapons, but to see the evolution of the digital world,” he said.
He also put a lot of trust in Charlie Lehmer, a “big, lovable gaming nerd” on the visual effects team.
"I did 12 movies and Swen did 'Avengers,' so we're very experienced adults," Levy said. “And [yet] every time he watched a sequel, he'd say, 'Charlie, what do you think?' Charlie turned around like the intern with a megaphone. It was one thing for me, Ethan, Swen, or our cinematographer George Richmond to feel good about something, but unless I had Charlie, the voice of the true gaming community, giving his blessing or calling the bull, I wasn't sure. Absolutely we had hit the nail on the head."
The film was shot almost entirely in Boston, with some new filming in Los Angeles. The interiors were built in airport hangars or sound studios capable of hosting large stages. “I think we took great care in using Boston for its famous brutalist architecture for the outside world and its federalist, more parochial and bucolic architecture for the game world,” said Tobman.
But other cities like Seattle, Seoul, Tokyo, Pittsburgh, and even Christopher Nolan's portrayal of Gotham City in "The Dark Knight" served as inspiration for the film's real-world look. Other influences were the films “Brazil” (1985) and Hal Ashby’s satire “Being there” (1979).
“I've noticed a trend where video games have really been based on movies and movies are now being informed by video games,” said Tobman. “When you play 'Red Dead Redemption or 'Shadow of the Colossus,' you're watching some of the greats of western film noir or Ridley Scott's science fiction. There is enormous creativity and world-building at play. They are using the same technology and software and even some of the same people [to make them]."
“There's this fascinating strand of game design that is distinctly cinematic in its inspiration,” said Levy. "So there's not really an overlap between the two media, but rather a cross-pollination of ideas that have improved both."
Tobman says his favorite ensemble is the Molotov Girl Hideaway, an ensemble made entirely of fabric, which was also technically the hardest to pull off. “How do you light this? How do you film this? "Tobman said." There is no wood, no metal, no structure.
Instead, the production design team built representations of tracing paper models and laser cut 300 pieces of panels into slightly different shapes to look like stalagmites. “We basically built a cave out of fabric,” Tobman explained.
The set, which was made with a material similar to a parachute, took three months to make. It has a white plexiglass floor that reflects everything "so you can't have a single stain" and required an "army" of people to stretch it, vaporize it, squeeze it and light it with a white lightbox. “So everything seems to be breathing,” Tobman said. "It feels like you're inside a whale's belly."
Levy says he's most proud of a scene in the film's third act when Guy confronts Dude, a much darker, stronger version of himself. “We found the actor who plays Dude on a Google search and I recognized him from the gym I go to in Los Angeles,” Gillberg said.
“In the original script, Dude was supposed to be a mirror image of Guy,” he added. So the original idea was that Ryan Reynolds would play Dude and Guy. But we didn't want to have to go through the time it takes to shoot an actor twice. So Shawn really wanted to find a way to film him simultaneously so Ryan could play Dude."
Aaron Reed, the actor who played Dude, was filmed with motion capture, and in post-production, the crew sewed Reynold's face onto Reed's body using the same technology.
The filmmakers were careful to bury plenty of Easter eggs for eagle-eyed fans.
“These are people who are stuck in a city and don't know it, so there are travel agencies that advertise trips to nowhere where you don't get off the plane, at prices you can't afford,” Tobman said. “There are sales in department store windows that say 'Offer tomorrow and the day after tomorrow and they appear every day. There are fast food restaurants with cheerful meals, including grenades, nunchucks, and machine guns. We are playing with the idea of a satire in which we comment on the world we know today: it is hyperviolent, hypersexual, and excessive.”
Guy's apartment is another space filled with Easter eggs. As a video game character, his apartment was intentionally half-developed.
“The [game designers] have literally saved the number of gigabytes they want to give their house,” Tobman said. “So the front door has five locks and it doesn't have a handle, there's a day left for the calendar and the closet has a bowl and a spoon, but he doesn't have a fork or knife because he only eats cereal. So it was an incredibly fun game of burying Easter eggs. This apartment is really Guy's situation personified and externalized. "
Free City may just be a fantasy video game set inside the context of the film Free Guy, but it clearly draws inspiration from a number of real-world video game franchises. Free Guy's Free City draws heavily on the world of Grand Theft Auto, from its many settings to the objectives that players must do in order to progress through the game's levels.
"Free Guy," starring Ryan Reynolds, depicts Boston as a video-game metropolis. As Guy, a bank teller who discovers he's been an unwitting pawn in a violent video game unfolding all around him, Ryan Reynolds is in his element in "Free Guy," which may be thought of as the "Wreck-It Ralph" of the real world.
In terms of the game's objective or setting, Fortnite cannot be directly compared to Free City, but it is frequently mentioned. From in-game characters recreating Fortnite emotes like various dances to Millie and Guy escaping on a Fortnite-style glider, it's clear that Fortnite influenced the creation of Free City.
2. Sunset Overdrive
This is what Sunset City, the setting for Sunset Overdrive, is like. It's a dark version of Free City. In this game, there are no cover-taking mechanics, which forces the player to move quickly and embrace the game's fast and chaotic pace.
3. Sleeping Dogs
Guy's combat skills improve when he levels up in Free City and rejoins Millie, aka Molotov Girl. Many video games have martial arts-inspired action, but Sleeping Dogs takes it a step further. Its battle is violent and requires the player to use the environment to get an advantage. Millie and Guy are high-leveled enough to deal with the more accomplished combatants in Free City.
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