Director Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) had a whole new post-modern take for The Amazing Spider-Man: naturalistic, organic and more intimate. He even took his poses from the more recent Ultimate series of Marvel comics. Not only that, but Webb didn't want his crew to have any association with the previous Spider-Man movies.
This initially took production VFX supervisor Jerome Chen by surprise. But in the end having a clean slate proved liberating for him and his Sony Pictures Imageworks team. The new Spidey vibe was all about regeneration, including the depiction of Manhattan. In fact, one of Chen's favorite moments is when Spidey makes his way down 7th Avenue to get to the Lizard. "There's a long, extended swinging sequence, and the IMAX aspect ratio opens up and you really get to feel like you're above the city, 70 stories high," Chen suggests. This feeling of being up there with Spidey is enhanced by shooting natively in 3-D (in this case with the 3ality rig and Red Epic camera), utilizing the three Vs, according to Webb: Volume, Velocity and Vertigo.
" There's dirt there but also steam and things growing and things changing, even in the design of New York," Chen continues. "They were gonna shoot on the Universal backlot, and they just built a large exterior set because the backlot had burned down, so they have a section [replicating] New York with a brand new construction where they consulted all sorts of production designers in the business. We used that with extensions anchored at the end of each street corner in order to expand it. But I looked at how they were going to dress it, and I saw all this scaffolding and there was steam and the whole thing looked like it was under construction. Then when I asked what the actual sets were gonna look like, they said this is it. And if you look at Manhattan now, the whole place looks like it's under construction. There's a lot of scaffolding, steam and colorful lights. You can't see the facades of the buildings unless you get up really high, so that's the organic, natural look that Marc was going for."
There's more of an organic quality to Andrew Garfield's Peter Parker as well. He's an orphan determined to find out what happened to his parents and solve the mystery of his father's scientific research as well.
"He wanted Peter to do the research during the vigilante phase and pull together from different sources to create the suit, inspired by Liege riders," Chen recalls. "He only has one suit, so by the end of the movie it gets pretty scuffed up. So we ended up with four different suits in the computer so that we were always rendering the correct one with the right amount of damage."
Additionally, Webb wanted to see the right mechanical set up to swing a guy above a street and have him go from one line, shoot his web and then reach for another. He wanted it to look convincing so they built it. "There's an early scene where he swings underneath an elevator bridge trying to escape from the police," Chen explains. "Seventy-five percent is done practically as a wire stunt, and you get a really interesting texture to the movement. It was a combination of fluid with a staccato beat in the middle and then back to fluid. Our animators really studied that and tried to emulate it. If you're 100-200 feet off the ground, you have much more momentum but you're still taking your cues from how gravity affected him earlier.
"As he reaches the end of his swing, he has to let go and find another place to web, hook onto the web and then swing again and begin his descent. So there's going to be a pattern and a rhythm rather than one continuous motion. Spidey has to make his next pick point. We wanted to see where he was shooting and then see where the web actually hits. It was an interesting issue of observing him making these split second decisions. It becomes a limitation during the climax when there are no pick points. So he needs help to give him a clear path."
In order to create this new look, it required not only hand-crafted animation, which is entirely key-framed, but also state of the art rendering and then making sure that the digital version of New York at night blended with anything photographed.
"The city was a huge undertaking and in some ways more challenging than anything else along with the movement of Spider-Man," Chen observes. "The climactic sequence is nearly all CG as well as the swinging scene down 7th Avenue. Those took almost a year and nearly 300 shots to complete because of the complexity of the rendering and making sure that the stereo flowed well. It took a lot of iterations to get right. It becomes more subjective."
Since the majority of the movie takes place at night, they studied how lights and colors blend together and defocus in the real photography. "We made sure the CG had the same feeling," Chen says. "And colors are important because a city at night is mostly defined by the color of the windows. You learn that each building has different types of colors. Some are green windows, some are warmer, some have blinds that are open and some are closed. We created a whole library of room interiors, so that whole floors could look like an office building; other floors were hotels with blinds. We made sure there was a television flickering inside a window whenever possible because Spider-Man might land on a perch and you want to see the detail around him. And it's all defined by these buildings and windows. We used our global illumination renderer, Arnold, which creates beautiful images that take forever.
Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a regular contributor to Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen and features interviews with all six actors.