In the third and final article in our Spider-Man 3 series, Bill Desowitz takes a closer look at the making of symbiotic goo/Venom.
For more details of all the visual effects in this record-breaking film, check out VFXWorld's additional Spider-Man 3 coverage.
The creation of Venom was an evolutionary process that involved effects and character animation. All images © 2007 Columbia Pictures Industries Inc. All rights reserved.
In depicting Venom, one of the most popular super villains in the Spider-Man comic canon, Sam Raimi was insistent that the basic symbiotic goo creature from outer space be totally alien. It couldn't resemble a spider or an octopus, but rather a black creepy crawler in the best Ray Harryhausen tradition. According to animation supervisor Spencer Cook, the creation of this character was an evolutionary process to figure out how to piece together this bizarre collection of wind tubes, tendrils and other appendages that pulls it along. "This was a tricky balance to keep this thing looking alien," Cook insists.
And at Sony Pictures Imageworks they creatively blurred the lines between character and effects animation. "Dave Seager was the CG supervisor who developed the goo, so that was a thing that was a little painful because in the beginning nobody knew what goo was or what it looked like or how it moved," adds digital effects supervisor Peter Nofz.
"In the beginning we got great conceptual art," Nofz continues. "Nevertheless, it took us some time to figure out how to animate and how to make it move. In the beginning, we tried a lot of procedural approaches and came to the conclusion that it wasn't going to cut it. It wasn't really what Sam wanted. He wanted intelligence, and he wanted something that was menacing and scary. So early on we realized that this was more of a character animation job. So Spencer Cook concentrated on hiring people with strong human animation skills, which is very labor intensive and painstaking: more than other animation because everybody knows when it doesn't look right and what needs to get fixed.
"We also looked at people that could work with Maya in a very technical way, and we came up with a subset of people. We told them that they would have to work with the effects animators and would also have to build rigs on a shot-by-shot basis because that's what this became. Rather than having a goo rig, it became a toolset where every animator put together his own goo rig quickly and then started animating it. And other animators would normally come up with main kinds of strands or pods, as we called them, and their motion and overall feeling and try to get an approval from Sam.
"And then a second group of effects animators would come in and would normally add more pods: connect different kinds of pods with spans or little membranes that either had dynamics or not depending on the needs of the shots. After they were done, we would leave the Maya pipeline and pipe it in finally to the Houdini pipeline, which has the advantage of the meta-balls, which is the kind of quality that the goo needed to have."
For the final battle, goo strands were used. But a couple of animators were always on hand to add more strands to get that animated, Harryhausen feel.
The other thing that was necessary for the goo was absolutely precise matchmoves, according to Nofz. If a matchmove was off, then all of a sudden the goo would intersect and they wouldn't see it anymore. "We had many shots that needed to stay in matchmove for months until we figured out exactly how the body moved," Nofz adds. "I should point out that I normally bundle matchmove together with rotomation. For matchmove we use bouju and whatever else is out there. But what it comes down to is we really needed an accurate representation of the character, and that's normally when our rotomators and sometimes our animators have to go in frame-by-frame.
"For the final battle, we used goo strands, although that was a little less painful because all we had to do was put the strands in place. And for the final Venom at the end, that whole portion again was heavily animated, as described before. We ran out of time so there is more of a procedural component because there was no other way to get it done. But we always kept a couple of animators to add more strands to get that animated, Harryhausen feel."
For the complicated birth of Venom in the Bell Tower, in which the symbiotic goo is ripped off of Parker and latches onto Brock, there was another tight integration of animation and effects. "What we found was that it throws all the rules out the window because it turns the pipeline from a linear serial process into an iterative loop," explains visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk. Again, it blurred the lines for character animators who performed effects-like dynamics and effects animators who performed character-like effects too.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.