Free Guy Visual Effects Supervisor Swen Gillberg On Creating Dude And Free City [Interview]

Swen Gillberg has helped create superheroes, fighting robots, and in the case of "Free Guy," a virtual city called Free City. Gillberg, who works at Digital Domain, was first nominated for an Academy Award for his work with Shawn Levy. The visual effects supervisor worked on "Real Steel," which scored him an Oscar nod, as well as the third "Night of the Museum" film. 

With "Free Guy," the visual effects supervisor helped turn Boston into a vivid gameplay environment. Gillberg faced a tall task, including the opening car chase and creating Guy's final opponent, Guy. For the action, he looked at games such as Anthem, Apex Legends, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Halo, to name a few. Recently, the visual effects supervisor told us about his experience of creating Free City. 

"No rules. Best idea won."

Grand Theft Auto was the main point of reference, right?

Yeah, we looked at literally hundreds and hundreds of games, but Grand Theft was always a predominant one, just with the whole bank robbery multiple times a day. But we tried to let every game influence us, trying to get the intricacies of each one, where our game play itself, if you see in the monitor, we had a lot of iterations on that, that went from all the way to cartoony Fortnite back to GTA. And we found that we didn't empathize with the characters enough, so we steered them more towards a slightly more realistic look than the cartoonish look. But we really tried to let every video game influence it.

What were some of the more cartoony touches that got pulled back?

Just the bigger cartoony eyes, and even cartoony shaded looks. And in early test screenings, we found that the audience didn't empathize enough with the characters, so we dialed it back to look more real. We actually dialed it all the way to look photo-realistic, but then you couldn't tell it was a video game. It was a constant back and forth until we finally landed on the look.

So, Guy had very cartoony eyes originally?

All the characters in the in video game itself did. I'm talking about just when they're in game play in the screens. So, we had slightly cartoony looking characters with stylized Grand Theft Auto-y background.

What were some rules early on that were established for the city and characters?

No rules. Best idea won. One of the guys that works for me named Charlie, our video game guide, he just goes to play games all the time. And so, if we wanted some input on, would an NPC do this or not, we'd go to Charlie, and we jokingly, even Shawn, the director, wanted the Charlie's stamp of approval on all of our video game-esqueness.

"It was a bit of a leap of faith."

Have all the Easter eggs in this movie been picked up on already?

You'll notice, if you look in the background, obviously we put guys on fire running around, that was a tip of the hat to Grand Theft Auto. And then you'll notice we had digital people running into walls or getting stuck halfway into walls in the backgrounds here and there. Then some of the more obvious ones, which were all the Marvel homages, the shield and the Hulk fist, all super fun to put in. We spent a bunch of time in post and spicing up the scenes and we would just sit around, me and Shawn, and sometimes Ryan and our editor, Dean Zimmerman, would be like, "What do you think the shot needs? Maybe a dinosaur?" It was literally that kind of fun banter back and forth that put all the extra little pieces of flare in the movie.

For the shield and the Hulk fist, were those animated always exactly like what we see in the Marvel movies? Were they changed in any way?

Well, I wanted to match it as close as we could to possible. It was super top secret when we were filming. So the shield was roughly the right size, but we wanted to make sure no one took paparazzi photographs of it. It's all CG, but I wanted something that was painted grey actually on the day.

It started with Ryan just coming up with the idea, which we all just loved and went for. And then, we tracked Ryan's body and then modeled the Hulk fist. The company that did both the shield and the Hulk fist was ILM. I previously had done Avengers 4 and 3 and Captain America 3, so it was the same company that had done it for us in the past. So, we literally regenerated the original shield and Hulk asset, and then, basically attached them to Ryan and rendered away.

Which effect was the trickiest to pull off?

I think that's the Dude face replacements. I've used face replacements a lot in my career. There's a company called Lola that is extremely good at them. We've never leaned so hard into actual talking face placement. So, it was a bit of a leap of faith. We had previously on "Night at the Museum 3" did basically a Ben Stiller against Ben Stiller. And when we did that, we shot it with motion-control cameras, which is a time consuming process. 

Shawn let me know that he didn't want to do another motion control shoot, just because it's a pain in the butt. Early in pre-production, I did a proof of concept with the actor, Aaron, who ended up playing Dude. And then, we took Ryan's stunt double and put his face on Aaron, just as a proof of concept. We're all super pleased with the results, and I think it came out great. But it was a little nerve-wracking in the beginning, because it was pushing the envelope.

What about the motion control is such a difficult process?

Motion control are cameras that are pre-programmed, and the equipment is big and heavy and hard to move around. And pre-programming the actual camera moves takes a lot of time. So, it makes your shoot days go very long. In this case, we literally just, Aaron fought Ryan, or interacted with Ryan, and then we'd do a quick lighting reference with Ryan in place of Aaron, but it really didn't slow our shooting day down at all.

"Free Guy" is now available on Blu-Ray and digital.