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'Spider-Man'’s Lizard Part 1: The Animation

Animation supervisor Dave Schaub describes the challenges animating Spider-Man’s latest nemesis, the Lizard.

Rhys Ifans as Dr. Curt Connor, morphing into The Lizard. All images: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Driven mad by his relentless quest to perfect the cross-species genetic regeneration that would bring him a new arm. Dr. Curt Connor’s metamorphosis into the evil Lizard, and back into his human form, is a visually stunning and integral part of the new superhero blockbuster, The Amazing Spider-Man.  I recently had a chance to talk with two of the main supervisors involved in creating Spider-Man’s latest adversary.  In this first article, animation supervisor Dave Schaub talks about the animation process that brought the Lizard to life while in our second article [being published tomorrow], digital effects supervisor Dave Smith talks about the Lizard’s skin simulation and effects work.

Dan Sarto: Can you tell me a little bit about your role on this film, specifically your involvement with the visual development and animation of the Lizard?

Dave Schaub:  Well let’s see.  I joined the production sort of late in the game at a time when the volume of work kind of exploded.  There was a lot of work suddenly that came about, I think in a large part, because the director [Marc Webb] was thrilled with what he was seeing and wanted to do more of it. I think, initially, he was thinking most of the stuff was all going to be done with practical effects, actors on wires and stuntman on wires, that kind of thing.  And when we demonstrated what was possible, that we could actually create that kind of movement with the CG characters, with Spider-Man and the Lizard, he was just genuinely excited and realized all the things he could do.

So that’s where it opened up as far as adding more sequences, adding more shots, and then the shot count goes through the roof and that’s when I came on.  Between Randy [Cook, the other animation supervisor] and myself, we divided up the work and got through this thing.

Dan: What were some of the biggest challenges you faced leading the Lizard’s animation team.  I understand, for example, no mo-cap was used and that you made extensive use of reference materials.

Dave:  Well, Rhys [Ifans] played Dr.  Connors and he transforms into the Lizard.  So everything we did with close up work on the Lizard was all done looking at specific reference that they shot of Rhys.  If it wasn’t something that was actually shot on set, they would go back and do pick up shots, so we would have good video reference for all of that stuff.

And as you mentioned, there wasn’t any mo-cap.  Not to say we couldn’t use mo-cap.  We’ve done a number of these films where we’ve gone both ways and in this case we just decided, because mo-cap tends to require a lot of cleanup, we just decided to take the artistic approach and not burden ourselves with mo-cap when we’ve got good reference to work from.

So the Lizard’s face was built with a muscle-based system and then we did MOVA facial expressions of the actor.  In other words, we did a lineup of a ton of different expressions and those expressions were converted into muscle values for the face.  So then we would have a huge list of expressions that the animators could choose from, that would be broken out into different regions of the face, brow region, the eyes, the cheeks, the mouth, that kind of thing.

When we dialed in an expression, we knew that we were hitting Rhys’ wheel.  For example, take a squint.  If we say dial-in a squint, it isn’t just a random squint that the animator is designing on the fly, it is a squint that was acquired from the MOVA session.  But other then that the animation itself was keyed, but we knew that when we were setting those keys, we were actually hitting the expressions that the actor hit.

And then on top of that, we had secondary animation controls where the animator could go in and I won’t say override, but add on top of what the MOVA expression has given them.

Dan: Was there any part of the animation process that was particularly difficult?

Dave:  Yeah, I would say, executing the weight of the character is always a challenge.  And I think that’s another reason why the mo-cap solution wasn’t really the best choice in this case, because you get a guy in a mo-cap suit, who would come off as a guy in a big lizard suit, because it would still have the weight of a human actor. So, yeah it was really very much an artistic challenge to go in, shot by shot, keeping everybody on the same page and executing that weight and getting the believable physics for a character that scale.  There wasn’t any magic bullet necessary, it’s just a matter of monitoring and making sure that everybody stayed on track and we got that weight executed in a believable way.

That was especially tricky when you put Spider-Man and the Lizard together in the same scene, because you’ve got some animators that are particularly good with the Lizard and others that are particularly good with Spider-Man.  If you put the two of them together in a scene you can’t really split it up and give one animator Spider-Man and the other the Lizard because there is so much physical interaction between them.

It’s tricky enough with one character to do a convincing take on what the weight is, but then you put two of them together in the same scene with hand-to-hand combat like that, it gets particularly tricky.  And that was how the whole back half of the high school fight sequence was done.

The first half was when the Lizard shows up at the high school and the whole fight begins.  That was all practical photography for the environment, and it was pretty much Andrew Garfield fighting what would ultimatelybe a CG Lizard.  And that established the movement style, because Andrew is fighting a stand in.  And then Rhys was always there on set dealing with the stand-in tasks and delivering the lines, that kind of thing.  Then when we got to the second half of the high school fight, that’s where everything became CG.

Dan: So the fight elements are all CG?

Dave:  Everything.  The school, the interior of the school was all digital.  We have the front half as our guide as far as the look that needs to be achieved.  But then that’s also where the fight got really dynamic after Andrew put on his mask and now he’s Spider-Man.  Now we had complete freedom to make Spider-Man do whatever we wanted him to do.  You know, run up, climb up walls and across the ceiling.  The Lizard is chasing him and there is a really big dynamic thing going on between two of them.  Because it was all digital at that point, it did allow Mark [Webb] to go back and look at the action after we’d executed the animation, [and see it] maybe was broader than he initially thought was possible.

But it allowed him to look at it and think, “Well, it would be kinda cool if we put the camera here instead,” which was really liberating for him of course because you’re not constrained by where that camera was on set.

So in the moment, for example where Spider-Man runs up the wall and across the ceiling and the Lizard is chasing him, yeah it looks cool based on where he thought the camera should be initially, but then it gives him the opportunity to say, look put the camera here, let’s cut the end.  It really puts the audience in the heart of the action, really get up close and track along with the characters.  It really helped the stereo aspect of it as well.  Truly, it gets the audience immersed in that moment.

Dan: Can you tell me a little bit about some of the tools that you used, whether you had to modify any of your existing toolsets, or was there anything new created for the film?

Dave:  I would say there is really nothing, no, not any new technology.  I mean for the most part, it was our standard face rig with the controls and because of the nature of the face and the way the mouth works there is kind of a webbing on the inside of the mouth that was just a modeling and rigging thing that was sort of like an extra feature. 

There was a nictitating membrane in the eye. There were transitions from being a Lizard back to human and vice versa.  It’s got the slitted lizard eye that needs to transform into a normal looking pupil.  Technology-wise, I think one interesting thing was the lizard skin and how that was handled, which I think Dave Smith talked to you about.

But we had a full muscle system under the hood there.  And then the skin in this case – the entire skin was treated as cloth.  He was draped in this leathery sort of skin.  And, if you look at, like an iguana that turns its head, you get this big thick leathery kind of quality to the skin, it holds in bunches and wrinkles in natural ways.

So by making the skin a simulation we were able to achieve that very lizzardy looking skin.  And then there are dynamics on top of that, dynamics that we have in animation that we control on our end, where we can explicitly get in there and add more jiggle and more punch where needed.  And then on top of that when that gets into effects, they will put a simulation over the whole thing for even more jiggle.

Dan: How long did you have to do all this work? How big of an animation team did you have?

Dave:  See when I came on, I think there was something on the order of 80 animators total at full capacity. Randy and I just split up the animators.  Essentially, I worked with 40, he worked with 40.  And though it was like two distinctly separate teams, we would interchange the players as needed.  I was on for the last six months and in that time period, we banged out a lot of shots.  But you know, to be honest, I think wanted to get back to you on when it started, because it seems like it’s been going on for at least a year and are you online Rachael?

Dan: And how many shots?

Dave: On the entire film, Imageworks completed 670 shots.  There were 474 animation shots with Spider-Man, the Lizard or both.  Pre-production, including character and environment development started in December of 2010.  Character animation on shots during production lasted from September 2011 through April 2012.

Dan: Tell me about “the swing” shot in the finale.

Dave:  That’s kind of an interesting development.  It was right towards the end of production when Mark had cut the film together and was looking for an interesting way to end the film.  There is this little “connection” that Peter has with Gwen at the end in the classroom, and he thought it would be great to have a nice climactic moment, an iconic movement for Spiderman.

So he thought okay, we’re going to go from the classroom, we’re going to transition into a night panorama of New York City and in the distance we see Spiderman swing around the building then up into frame.  Then there is this big iconic Spiderman pose, where it goes into bullet time and boom, we go into the credits.  We thought that would be a really cool way to end it.

Then he saw it and he thought, “Wouldn’t it be cool if we really push this to be something way more dramatic?”  What he proposed was that we turn this into one of those moments where the camera just follows him.  You can slingshot him off the gantry of the crane and then you can strike a pose up against the Washington Bridge, one of the iconic Spiderman poses in bullet time and then fly down over the roof tops and then through alley and kind of do this crazy sort of Spiderman like parkour through a long alleyway and then out the other side.  And then he hits the pose.  And it was one of those moments where I was just wondering wow, given the time left, is this even possible?  But it was also one of those moments where, “Damn that would be cool…”

Dan: Right, you wanted to do it…

Dave:  Really, truly, I mean that’s the kind of thing that excites the animators, especially ending the film on such a dramatic piece, where animators can really go to town with it and show their stuff.  The solution really was to break that one shot up into four pieces.  And then we would identify an in and out for each animator and then as each little section was to grow or shrink, we would still make sure we’re hitting those connection poses.  And then we finessed each one of those four little pieces.  Once each little piece was bought off in the end, we were able to string them all together seamlessly to create this long sequence.  I think it’s a minute total of solid animation at the very end of the movie that just takes us out into the credits.  So that was one of those moments that I’m glad we had the opportunity to do it, because I think the instant reaction is a little bit of, “We can’t do that.”  Then the animators say, “Yes we can, yes we can, let us do it!”

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Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.

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