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How Project Power turned Joseph Gordon-Levitt into a superhero - Exclusive

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is no stranger to sci-fi action set pieces, having fought hand-to-hand in a rotating room in Inception and taken on Bruce Willis with clever use of timey-wimey stuff in Looper. Project Power, however, is the first time he's worked in the fantastical world of super-powered cinema. His character in the film, a police detective known only as Frank, makes use of a street drug that grants its users special abilities for five minutes to take on thugs, dealers, and other baddies on something resembling equal footing.

For Frank, popping a power pill renders him super-strong and super-durable, to the point of being bulletproof. That's not necessarily uncharted territory for superhero movies, but the way in which Project Power renders it is certainly unique. Visual effects company and creative studio Framestore worked on Project Power, and the man responsible for giving the film its gritty, grounded feel is Overall Visual Effects Supervisor Ivan Moran, whose blending of practical and CGI effects work is truly something to marvel at.

Moran sat down with Looper for a chat and revealed what it took to make Joseph Gordon-Levitt super on screen.

Finding Frank's powers in Project Power

The first step was deciding how Frank's classic comic book-style powers could be depicted in a new and fresh way. While many of Project Power's super abilities have their roots in the animal kingdom, Moran took inspiration for the ripple effect we see when Frank is under the influence from a more unlikely source. 

"You're probably familiar with Oobleck, I think is what they call it in North America, which is basically corn powder mixed with water," says Moran. "It produces this gloopy... it's called a non-Newtonian fluid. And basically, it acts as a liquid when it's got no pressure. And then, when you apply pressure, it acts as a solid, and there's YouTube reference of people firing bullets into this stuff. It can stop a bullet, it can stop a brick, it can stop anything."

How does that translate into superhuman abilities? For Moran, it all came down to subatomic vibrations. "We came up with the idea that perhaps inside his body, power has amplified his subatomic vibrations," he recalls. "They've coalesced into this non-Newtonian fluid, which is what takes the impact of the bullet."

The webbed, rippling effect we see when Frank takes a hit did not, however, solely have its roots in Oobleck, also drawing from military technology and animal biology. "There's research and development for military armor that's basically a very high form of that Oobleck idea on the inside," says Moran. "But then, it has this laboratory-made spider web stuck on the outside that actually stops the thing penetrating in the first place. So, we came up with the idea that on the outside of his skin — again, riffing off an armadillo or a rhinoceros — that power had changed the biology of his skin surface to act like a bit of armor plating."

Joseph Gordon-Levitt's on-set power-up

Once the concept and design were set, Moran was faced with the challenge of bringing it to life on-camera. The creativity required to do so was amplified by his desire to not entirely rely on CGI. 

"If I don't do something to Joseph, it doesn't matter what I shoot," explains Moran. "I'm going to have to throw it away and replace it with a full CG face, in 4K. That's that's not trivial. So, we tried all sorts of things, and at the end it was really old school. It was an air nozzle hidden behind the barrel of the real gun that shoots air into him. It's obviously shot high-speed. And that's what produces the wrinkles. The only thing that was a bit of a giveaway was, his hair blew upwards because of the air. So we had to do CG hair to hide, disguise that a bit."

Not every actor would be up for being shot in the face repeatedly with compressed air, but Gordon-Levitt was apparently game. 

"I mean, he's such an incredible star," raves Moran. "He'll do anything, but yeah, there were moments when it happened so quickly, and then with a Phantom camera, you've got to wait. You sort of download it, and then you can see the take. So it takes a couple of minutes. So, he would do a take, and then we're all waiting, waiting. Then, you look at it, and you're like, 'Oh, it's great, but Joseph, you're closing your eyes before, you're anticipating.' It's like a nanosecond, but it gives it away. So, yeah, we're like, 'We're going to have to do another one.' It took, I don't know, probably about half an hour of actual shooting. It was a lot of setup and messing around obviously, but that's such an incredible shot."

You can see Joseph Gordon-Levitt's powers manifest in Project Power, currently streaming on Netflix.

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