Audiences and critics’ may not be in agreement regarding The Amazing Spider-Man 2, yet almost everyone concurs on the excellence of the craftsmanship. The quality of the special effects is beyond reproach: Very few movies manage to destroy Times Square without making New York look like Cleveland (wink wink).
The Vancouver-based FX and animation company Sony Pictures Imageworks has been involved with the Spider-Man movies from the beginning (including the Sam Raimi trilogy). With every incarnation, Imageworks has corrected and improved the looks of live-action Spidey: His suit, web, movement and displacement. “Everything can always look more authentic” seems to be their motto.
I had the chance to hang out with The Amazing Spider-Man 2 senior visual effects supervisor, Jerome Chen, the digital effects supervisor, David Smith, and the animation supervisor, David Schaub. Chen was nominated for an Oscar for Stuart Little. Smith was also up for an Academy Award thanks to his work in Alice in Wonderland.
Main photography for The Amazing Spider-Man 2 took five months, while post production lasted nearly eight. Unlike most movies today, TASM 2 was shot in film, not digitally (in the words of Jerome Chen, “it’s just beautiful”). Visual effects were finished in March, just two months ahead opening day.
According to the digital FX supervisor, David Smith, the film tried to merge the fantastical with the physical: “What works in comics doesn’t necessarily work in movies. Every pose has a purpose and must be motivated by an action behind.” Here is the reasoning behind the special FX work in the movie.
Spider-Man: The action may unfold too quickly to realize it, but Spidey’s movements are determined by gravity, adherence to Newton laws, aerodynamics and proportional scale to speed. Imageworks has a tool nicknamed Dr. Gravity that incorporates all this information when animating the character, in order to keep it ground in reality (at a subconscious level, one may notice a violation of the laws of time and space). In addition, the FX team had a stunt double to study the actual physicality of Spider-Man feats.
What some have called “flying”, Imageworks calls “falling”. The strategy behind Spidey’s decreasing dependence on webs is to give the hero more freedom of movement. As for the arachnid physicality, his muscles are better defined and now even jiggle. The suit -originally designed as a second skin- now wrinkles, as any piece of clothing would.
Electro: The inspiration for Electro’s look came from stormy clouds and bioluminescent creatures. The character’s energy bubbles under the skin. The special effects team worked over make-up designed by Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero (The Walking Dead team). Electro’s nerve networks become a lightning storm (not anatomically correct, but it looks good). As for the villain’s movements, Electro was designed as if he was moving under water. Jerome Chen acknowledges that the problem with the Lizard in the first TASM was an all-CGI design. Consequently, Jaime Foxx’ performance had to be visible, even at the most SFX heavy sequences.
Showdown in Times Square: It took over a year to complete the 280 shots of the Times Square brawl between Electro and Spider-Man (the sequence only lasts ten minutes). The New York landmark itself was only used for a night during production, while for the rest of the showdown was shot in a large parking lot in Rochester. The entire area was reproduced digitally, based on pictures taken during preproduction and summarily destroyed during battle. If digital light distribution was once founded on geometry, now is on volume. The intention is to achieve a more realistic scattering and bouncing.
Future installments: Senior visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen would like to build longer sequences without cuts. He is particularly proud of a segment in the Oscorp energy plant showdown, in which battling Spidey and Electro go at it for a solid minute thanks to the seamless merger of three shots. This should allow audiences to “stay in the moment” (Michael Bay, take note). Imageworks will be involved with the next TASM installment, but the participation of the visual effects company in Venom and Sinister Six is yet to be decided.