Amazing Spider-Man 2: Visual Effects

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For the film’s visual effects, the filmmakers turned to the Academy Award®-winning team at Sony Pictures Imageworks, which has handled the visual effects work on all of the Spider-Man films, and to Visual Effects Supervisor Jerome Chen, who reprises his role from The Amazing Spider-Man. Chen says that he was gratified by the chance to re-team with Marc Webb. “Marc is a great collaborator,” says Chen. “He has a very instinctive understanding of visual effects. It’s like a second language to him. He creates a basic design, a loose framework, and then allows you to go off, do your research and come back with your own ideas. Even the craziest idea – he’ll accept it, riff on it, and find a way to work it into the story.”

Any Spider-Man film will face a heavy visual effects challenge, and The Amazing Spider-Man 2 was no exception. One of the greatest challenges, Chen says, were creating the visual effects elements of Electro. The challenge expressed itself in two ways – first, to add an electrical element to the character himself, and second, to discover the ways that the electricity the character generates would manifest itself.

(For more information about the visual effects elements in the character, please see the section “Designing Electro.”)

It was important to Chen to make the electricity that Electro is able to fire off as visually exciting as possible. “We wanted to do something unexpected,” he says. So, they went to nature. “We looked at colors and textures of photos from space and underwater animals,” he says. “We looked at nebulae, we looked at the hues and ranges of tropical animals. We introduced those colors into Max’s transformation in the tank, and later, when Electro starts firing his lightning bolts, it’s not a simple blue arc of electricity – there are oranges and purples. We keep the range much more colorful.”

“The direction we were given early on was that Electro’s electricity should be ‘beautiful but deadly,’” says one of the film’s CG supervisors, Christopher Waegner. “We studied high speed video footage of lightning bolts, to see the cracks and fingers of electricity. We studied Tesla coils, plasma balls, all of these representations of energy, and we put them all together. The lightning bolts are composed of about a dozen different layers of elements, depending on what type of lightning bolt he’s shooting and how it’s reacting with the environment.”

The visual effects team was also responsible for digitally creating much of Times Square. Though the production design team built an enormous and impressive set, certain elements could only be achieved in the computer. This included buildings and building interiors, storefronts, signage, billboards, lighting, and even small details like planters and lampposts.

To re-create Times Square, the VFX team started with the real thing. “Well before main production began, we shot an acquisition of Times Square – we covered every inch with a motion picture camera, still camera, and a team of surveyors,” says digital effects supervisor David Alexander Smith. “We captured every detail, brought it back to the shop, and detail by detail, we built it. We gave it a complex but efficient geometry that gets us where we need to be and makes it look authentic.”

“Times Square, obviously, is an enormous place. For example, there are 140 Jumbotrons – all of which are playing different material,” says Chen. “We had to create our own material for each Jumbotron. So not only were we creating a digital environment, we were creating hundreds of clips of video. And later in the sequence, it becomes an important story point: all of these screens show either Spider-Man or Electro. For Marc, this is a scene about how Electro wants to be seen, so when the screens switch to Spider-Man, it’s a big turning point for Electro, as he realizes that Spider-Man has taken the attention from him.”

As if building one of the most iconic landscapes in the world were not enough to complicate the sequence, Webb and Chen added another element – Spider Sense. “Electro has destroyed one of Spider-Man’s shooters, and Spider-Man has to figure out how to save the people on the stands,” Chen explains. “Marc had the idea that it was a frozen moment in time, with Spider-Man working out all the complexities of saving these people in a single moment. We called it the Spider Sense shot – everyone is standing in a frozen moment, and Spider-Man is moving through it.”

Though there were a number of solutions in how to pull off the sequence, the filmmakers chose a surprisingly practical one. “Andy Armstrong found dancers, athletes – people with very good muscle control – and we had them hold still, as best as they could, for the five or six minutes it took to get the camera through,” Chen says. “Everyone practiced for weeks, holding a pose – whether they were standing still or running or about to fall over. We built some stands to help them hold their weight, if they were in a dynamic pose. Then, in post-production, we could paint or freeze them the best we could – that was months of effort, to get the illusion to work.”

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 also represents a step forward in the way the film represents Spider-Man swinging through the city. “He has become a kind of a daredevil,” says Chen. “He swings as high as he can go, and then falls as close to the ground as possible before he shoots his next web. So we had some moments when we allowed him to fall; we even have a shot that’s as if he had a camera strapped to his chest – what would that look like? We had a lot of fun coming up with ways for him to interact with the city – and still had the gravity and physics that would make it believable.”

Still, some things about Spider-Man will never change, and with the experience of the animators at Sony Pictures Imageworks, Chen couldn’t have asked for a better team. “Our animators are expert witnesses,” he says. “They study movements, whether it’s going to be cartoony or realistic. They have an ability to mimic, and then they give it their own nuances. They’ll watch Andrew move, and then do their own tests before animating key frames by hand and giving it their own touches. It’s quite beautiful to watch the results.”

The final visual effects element was the film’s third villain – the Rhino. “We had some creative license in creating a wonderful villain in the Rhino – one that would make people laugh and fear at the same time,” says Smith. “We looked at old Russian tanks and military equipment. We wanted it to feel substantial and not rickety, but at the same time it’s kind of a hodgepodge. We ended up with something very strong and fun at the same time, playing off of the character that Paul Giamatti established.”

Even though the Rhino costume would be entirely CG (2,295 pieces of CG geometry, including 263 nuts and bolts), Giamatti performed on set in a 12-foot-tall, mobile unit. “It was important for a few reasons to have Paul Giamatti in some sort of physical contraption on the set,” says Chen. “Marc wanted Andrew and Paul to have the correct eyelines to each other – they had to see and act with each other. Also, because this scene is in daylight on Park Avenue, we could have the correct lighting on Paul when we put the CG suit around him. I’m sure that onlookers had no idea what they were looking at, but it looks great in the final film.”

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