‘Free Guy’ Production Designer Explains Why Most Video Game Movies Don’t ‘Get’ Gaming

“They’re trying to turn video games into movies by imposing movie rules onto the video game,” Ethan Tobman says

Free Guy Ryan Reynolds box officeJodie Comer video game movies
20th Century Studios

Why do movies never seem to “get” video games? While movies based on video games is a whole other story, most films about video games are stuck in the ’80s as though every game still asks players to rack up points or collect gold coins as they hunt for an extra life or evade pew-pew laser sound effects. The team behind Ryan Reynolds’ “Free Guy” wanted to change that.

Ethan Tobman, the production designer on “Free Guy,” was specifically tasked with capturing the look of the in-game “levels” and design of the film’s video game world. And Tobman says he and the “Free Guy” team were well aware of the “long history of poorly made movies about video games.”

“The reason so many in my opinion have failed is they’re trying to turn video games into movies by imposing movie rules onto the video game,” Tobman told TheWrap. “We tried to understand what makes a great video game from the inside out rather than the outside in. Hopefully we achieved that and gamers and enthusiasts will find our world really unique. It acknowledges movies that have come before it but it acknowledges how video games have informed movies.”

Tobman is alluding to the fact that modern video games have gone well beyond the arcade in recent years and gotten even more cinematic and sprawling in ways that most movies haven’t seemed to grasp.

FREE GUY Production Stills
The “stash house” in “Free Guy” as inspired by “Grand Theft Auto”. Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios

The video game world in “Free Guy” is a massively multiplayer online game called “Free City” that’s part “Fortnite” and part “Grand Theft Auto.” And Tobman in his designs naturally looked at those games extensively, as well as the communities of gamers on Twitch who spend hours discovering the ins and outs of those games, their glitches and their Easter Eggs. He even took to following around NPCs (non-playable characters) in games like “GTA” just to see if they get up to anything interesting.

But Tobman’s research didn’t stop there, and he curiously also drew some inspiration from games like “Red Dead Redemption” and even “Shadow of the Colossus,” which many gamers will know as an all-time classic and as cinematic or as much a representation of video games as an art form as anything.

That said, you may wonder how a colorful and silly film in which Ryan Reynolds evades capture from an admin dressed in a pink bunny skin has anything to do with “Shadow of the Colossus.”

Tobman said that a production designer doesn’t outright copy or reference other games or existing works. But his design of something like the multiplayer lounge seen in “Free Guy” pay homage to the cavernous and dark atmospheres of those games and pay homage to everything from the Tattooine cantina in “Star Wars” to real life spice markets in Turkey.

FREE GUY Behind the Scenes
Concept art of the Multiplayer Lounge as seen in “Free Guy”/Courtesy of 20th Century Studios

“We really look at equal parts fiction material and realistic, authentic material. That’s how you make perfect production design. You’re looking at things that really exist and things that don’t exist and have entertained people before,” he said. “We haven’t seen a physically realized video game that feels like the real world but with a twist and an original concept. And we really wanted it to feel like you were in a video game convincingly that was photo realistic.”

Photo realism was important for Reynolds’ character Guy, who plays an NPC and believes he’s a real person in a real world. And from his perspective, it should look real. In that sense, every scene has as much physical, constructed sets as possible, with the VFX complimenting the design where it can.

But from the audience’s point of view, Tobman said that director Shawn Levy made clear to him the world of the video game should immediately be distinguishable from the real world outside the game. That meant the “Free City” world was complete with high saturated pastels, clean symmetry and a great depth of field. The real world however is murkier, rainy, messy and with a very short depth of field.

That said, Reynolds’ apartment in “Free Guy” is loaded with intellectual jokes and oddities of a character whose world has clearly not been fully developed. His front door has five deadbolts but no knob. His books don’t have titles numbers on their spines. The calendar is missing a day. And his bed hangs precariously over a balcony. And if the game of “Free City” doesn’t look super familiar to any other existing video game, it’s because the world of their game is an ironic one.

“We’re not trying to impose filmmaking styles onto video games, we’re trying to use video games as our inspiration for how to be good filmmakers. That’s where the humor comes from but also where the pathos comes from,” Tobman said.

“Free Guy” opens in theaters Friday.

FREE GUY Behind the Scenes
Behind the scenes a gamer’s lair in “Free Guy”/Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios


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