“Free Guy,” in theaters Aug. 13, revolves around a world within a world — the video game “Free City.” Ryan Reynolds plays Guy, a background character in the game drawn into the action by Jodie Comer’s Molotov Girl, who is trying to keep “Free City” from being destroyed by its creator (Taika Waititi). Once Molotov Girl gets Guy to put on special glasses that allow him to see the game, the action takes off.
Production designer Ethan Tobman (“Black Is King,” “Beautiful Boy”) steps into his biggest project to date, working alongside director Shawn Levy to bring the video game to life. Levy and Tobman collaborated closely, the director says. “We needed to create a video game that doesn’t exist, that has its inspirations, but has an entirely singular aesthetic, and an aesthetic that is immediately and consistently different than the way we portray the real world.” He adds, “Ethan and I laid out a visual bible that laid out the rules of the world,” Levy says. “Colors, lenses, composition and the style of the camera movement — everything had its place, and everything had to abide by that aesthetic.”
Below, Tobman breaks down the world of “Free City.”
The “Real” World v. “Free City”
“Life outside the video game is murky and dirty. There’s frame obfuscation, soft focus, and there is a lot of gray and it rains all the time. Things are messy and annoying. Inside the game, things are clean, symmetrical and saturated. The frames are clean, and everything is in focus.
“We had an incredible time burying Easter eggs throughout ‘Free City.’ We were constantly poking fun at the idea that people are trapped. There’s the travel agency that offers flights to nowhere, somewhere, anywhere or everywhere. All the stores have signs that say ‘Sale tomorrow.’ When you go to the ATM, the balance is designed to be always just below whatever it is that you want to afford. We were inspired by Japanese garbage cans and Danish telephone booths, things that feel a little retro but are pop art in color. We would paint the cars the same colors as those garbage cans and the telephone booths. It’s subtle, but the idea is you’re a computer designer and you’re moving quickly. That world is hyper-colorized and hyper-physicalized; there are lots of tongue-in-cheek references to movies and video games. The cars, the signage, the branding, the newspaper stand — these are all influenced from everything from ‘Inception’ to ‘The Truman Show’ to ‘Pleasantville,’ and anything that is a movie within a movie.
“The idea is that it should look like a video game and it should look like a designer of a video game designed every color choice.”
“With the Badass: Stash House, every game player gets to accumulate wealth such as cars, weapons and guns. I wanted it to be enormous and to make no sense architecturally. It’s buried inside a mountain that we modeled after the volcanic spills in Iceland, where the volcanoes have made these astonishingly weird rock formations mixed with these weird angles. It’s like the Fortress of Solitude in ‘Superman,’ but made with black granite.”
Guy’s Stash House
“His is just a repurposed place that is a warehouse on the rough side of town. I went hog wild and thought if he’s going to collect every weapon he could ever get his hands on — and vehicle — maybe there’s a NASA pod and a horse.”
“He’s a background character that has not been given the brain-cell bandwidth by the [game] designers to develop into something dimensional. In a way, he has been economized. His house needs to look like a half-thought sentence. The stairway turns to go up to his bedroom and then disappears and reappears. There’s a bed on a floor on a 10-foot drop with no railing. You would die if you woke up and got out on the wrong side. There’s a calendar on the wall that’s missing Tuesdays. There’s a pencil with no sharpener. There’s a notepad that you can’t open. Some books are color-coded, but they have no titles.”
The Multi-Player Lounge
“The multi-player lounge went through 20 revisions because what the hell is it? It’s a place where everyone goes to chill out be a little bit naughty and in this case, it’s where Guy gets to see the world behind the glasses.
“My first pitch was, what if it’s like a Bangkok street market or the souks of Morocco, the giant spice markets and shops underground in Marrakesh and Fez? But what we finally landed on was this cross between the fanciest New York nightclub, somewhat inspired by the Oyster Bar at Grand Central and the Boom Boom Room. It’s got Turkish, Moroccan, even Thai influences with vaulted brick ceilings and archways. And yes, there is a little bit of a nod to the ‘Star Wars’ cantina.
“It’s dirty. We love the idea that every cubicle in the office was made out of pure glass so you can see everyone at every moment. Taikia’s character can see everyone at every moment. He’s super paranoid and controlling, so it’s like a panopticon. He’s the prison warden. A
“There are obfuscations, there are wires, there is half-eaten Chinese food, there’s stacks of tissue papers from people who don’t have time to go to the bathroom and blow their nose. It’s a sweatshop in Silicon Valley.
“We have this crazy modular wall that we built and we 3D printed. It’s a nod to Minecraft, but also, playing with the idea of old eight-bit graphics.”