High-tech means sky's the limit in Spider-Man
By Tamsyn Burgmann, The Canadian Press
VANCOUVER - It took 50 special effects artists about a year to digitally animate 280 shots in the electrifying 10-minute Times Square battle scene between Spider-Man and arch-villain Electro in the 3-D blockbuster sequel that debuted in North American theatres over the weekend.
It's just one example of the computer-generated effects touching nearly every aspect of "The Amazing Spider-Man 2."
Every villain in the script required some level of visual effects, said Jerome Chen, senior visual effects supervisor for the film.
"And not just the individual villains themselves, but wherever the villains were interacting with Spider-Man — and this was usually in the case of an action sequence, because of the choreography of that action and the fact that they were fighting and causing destruction — all the ancillary work would require digital effects also," said L.A.-based Chen, who works for Sony Pictures Imageworks.
"The complexity was very high."
Three main enemies confront Spider-Man (Andrew Garfield) at separate moments throughout the Marc Webb-directed film.
There's Electro (Jamie Foxx), the bumbling electricity-grid designer who goes from superfan to power-surging foe after a workplace accident, the maniacal Green Goblin (Dane DeHaan), who flies around on an electronic glider seeking revenge on his former childhood buddy, and Rhino (Paul Giamatti), the Russian mobster who operates heavy-duty mechanized battle armour as he wreaks death and destruction.
About half of the 400-strong Sony Pictures Imagesworks special effects team involved in the film are based out of its studio in downtown Vancouver (the other studio is in L.A.).
"It's not technology that does the work. Technology is designed by people to give artists the tools they need in order to create the imagery. The technology is just super-sophisticated paint brushes," Chen said, adding that the story always takes precedence.
"The reason imagery is getting more real is because computers and software have become very powerful. That allows the artist to do more work."
He gave the example of creating an image for a scene in New York City, which could have taken 10 to 20 hours. At the standard rate of 24-frames per second, that means needing at least 240 hours to build just one second of the film. Instead, an artist can draw and colour at their desk for a couple hours, then allow the computer to do all the rendering, he said.
David Schaub, the film's animation supervisor, said the computer isn't doing anything but storing character poses.
"It's tools that have been created so an artists can go in and sculpt it and sculpt it in an intuitive way. It's not doing the work, per se," he said.
In the same vein, each character is aesthetically enhanced via computer-assisted methods, but the team pointed out the foundation is hand-painted makeup applied to an actor who was picked for their performance skills.
"That's what they're there for, that's their job. That's Jamie Foxx acting (as Electro). The technology is just putting lightning under his skin," Chen said. "But the emotional intent of the scene, the character, what you see in his eyes in terms of what you're feeling, that's the actor and that's always going to be the case. A computer is never going to be able to replace that for a human."
Humans versus computers, or analog versus digital, remains a paradox for artists to grapple with. So they sometimes indulge to assure that special effects don't push the film into contrived territory. Chen said he and Webb deliberately shot the film in traditional, 35 mm anamorphic film.
"Because it's beautiful," Chen said. "We weren't sure how long film was going to be around, and when we began talking in 2012 we thought this could be our last chance."
Schaub said technology is merely the tool allowing the film's creators to merge fantasy with reality.
"Thankfully, Marc Webb was very passionate about making sure the physics was dead on," Schaub said. "It's walking a knife-edge of believability when you're talking about a super hero."
He gave the example of Spider-Man swinging through the streets of New York, apparently able to sustain the forces without being torn to pieces and having his arms ripped out of their sockets.
"But because he can do that, doesn't give him licence to break every other physical law of nature. So when gravity kicks in, gravity is gravity. He's not flying, he's falling."
The team was also determined to stick to several other scientific rules: adherence to Newton's Laws, accurate scale-to-speed relationships, representing weight correctly and aerodynamics.
But sometimes they stepped outside the realistic realm just to make the film more awesome. When a digital version of Gwen, protagonist Peter Parker's girlfriend (Emma Stone), falls down a clock-tower shaft with glass and gears tumbling alongside her, the team didn't stick with the structure's 30-foot height.
"We just did whatever was most dramatic," Chen said, before joking: "Emma was great at doing a lot of her stunts, but she balked at a 400-foot fall."
They wanted the viewing experience to feel as real as possible, within a comic-book world, said Chen.
"Believability? Marc had a great attitude about it. He's like, 'It needs to be about as believable as it can be with a guy in a red leotard flying through the city on a web. And given believability versus something really cool, whatever cool is, we would almost always pick cool."
Chen managed to make what he considers "some of the best stuff I think we've done" in about 16 weeks less time than the first instalment, "The Amazing Spider-Man."
He's already contemplating how he can outdo himself. But that involves something like creating a vastly longer shot where the audience doesn't notice the point-of-view change, rather than creating a film performed by entirely computer-generated actors.
"You can't carry a movie with a photo-real human," he said.
"If you want to do it as a digital thing, it's not just one person. It's an animator, a person doing skin, and then you've got to do cloth, and then you've got to do skin. It's an army of 1,000 people trying to re-create what an actor does instinctively."
Follow @tamsynburgmann on Twitter