'Spider-Man'’s Lizard Part 2: The Digital Effects

Digital effects supervisor David Smith describes the arduous task of building the stunning humanoid villain, the Lizard.

Spider-Man battles the Lizard across the ceiling at Peter and Gwenn's high school. All images: © 2012 Columbia TriStar Marketing Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Rhys Ifans brought a palpable measure of tragic humanity to the role of Dr. Curt Connor in the epic superhero reboot, The Amazing Spider-Man.  Giving realistic and stunning visuals to his evil alter ego The Lizard, involved months of animation and effects work that grew in scope as the complexity and sophistication of the look increased. I recently had a chance to talk with two of the main supervisors involved in creating Spider-Man’s latest adversary.  In this second of two articles, digital effects supervisor David Smith talks about the incredible details taken to build the digital skin simulation that made the Lizard look so “lizardy.”  You can also find the first article, where animation supervisor Dave Schaub talks about the animation process that brought the Lizard to life, previously published on VFXWorld.com

Dan Sarto: Tell me a little bit about your role, your involvement on the film in general, and then specifically with regards to the Lizard?

David Smith: Well, in general, I’m the Digital Effects Supervisor at Imageworks.  That title takes on a number of roles.  I work directly with our Visual Effects Supervisor and usually the production team.  I present the material to my Visual Effects Supervisor, Jerome Chen.  He also was the overall Visual Effects Supervisor on the film, after principal photography wrapped, so I presented to him, the director, producers and editorial on the creative team.

I was bought on after principal photography was completed as the work expanded.  So I came in after initial designs had already been rolling.  Usually, I’m the guy that gets that stuff [designs] rolling while they are shooting and then sometimes I help on the bigger demands of the shoot, but in this case I came on after principal photography wrapped.  So that’s kind of where we pickup the Lizard as well, it kind of ties in nicely for this discussion.

When I came on, they had done a piece for Comic-Con, which had not final, but temp versions of some of the shots that they intended to have in the movie. After they got back they really started editing the film together. At the same time, one of the things that we started to build was the Lizard, as a visual effect in the film.

We started by taking the legacy design from the maquette they had done that pretty much showed what they wanted the Lizard to look like.  There was an existing maquette that they used on set for reference and was the basis for what we started with.  When we first built our digital version, we actually matched that maquette very closely.  But it looked exactly like a maquette.  And so when I came on, I was charged, me and the team, a pretty extensive team of supervisors and artists, with bringing more life into it, so it didn’t look like a maquette, but looked like the living, breathing Lizard man, a mutation of Rhys Ifans’ character.  And so that was some of the first work we did, begin to infuse the characteristics of Rhys Ifans into the Lizard. 

Dan: Describe the process of infusing Rhys Ifans into the Lizard. 

David: I definitely am familiar with the comic book character of the Lizard through the years and he has taken many forms in the comic books.  So the character definitely has humanoid characteristics.  And in this case, one of the things that we were examining, both from the original design and what we needed to achieve in the movie,  was how much to give him lizard qualities in his face versus human qualities in his face.  We knew he was going to have to talk and emote and we would have to make him have human characteristics that you could believe in, especially when he was speaking.  The structure of his mouth, for example, had to be designed in a way that he could actually pronounce words, like he was actually speaking.  So you have to decide how much you’re going to go with a snout characteristic versus more human mouth characteristics.

The decision was made to keep him a little more human, so that he could be believable and less comical.  I think they [the director and producers] were a little afraid that if it was a flapping snout, it would look a little too comical.

So that’s when we went to infuse some of Rhys Ifans characteristics inthe Lizard.  We especially worked on the areas around the brow and around and in the eyes.  That’s where you read a lot of any specific character.  The mouth did have some lizard characteristics to it.  It could open very wide even though it was designed to speak and look somewhat lizardy, which I think was a nice hybrid between where we could have gone very human or very lizard-like. I think it was a nice balance which allowed us to put animation controls that we’ve developed over the years for humanoid characters. 

Many characteristics of Rhys were brought into the Lizard.  We referenced footage of Rhys and a lot of reference photography that we took to do digital doubles and to infuse the characteristics of an actor to make it look like it had realistic characteristics of lizards.  Obviously, we studied lots of reference of lizards.  That started with the look of lizards, the patterning of scales, the colorations, the more fine details like how translucent their skin was versus armored.  How light responded on their scales, like the slight iridescence you read a lot on snake scales and some smaller lizards, not as much on the big lizards.  A couple of the lizards that influenced the most were the Komodo dragon …

Dan: Yeah, I figured you’d referenced the Komodo dragon…

David: Yeah, I mean it’s a big strong lizard.  And then for some of the finer details, because we wanted the scales to have a little more interesting patterning than the Komodo dragon did, we actually looked at the iguana, which is a smaller lizard, but with more interesting detail to its scale patterning.

I can’t even name the other types of lizards, but [we used] just a tremendous amount of other lizard reference, depending on what kind of characteristic we wanted to roll in.  Like around the belly, we went with the whiter, lighter skin, which a lot of lizards have, as it gets softer as it rounds from the armored back to the softer flesh of the belly.  So those are some of the characteristics both subtle and a little more obvious that we rolled in from the references of the look of the lizards.

Dan: What were some of the digital tools you used to create the Lizard skin?

David: Individual scales were sculpted, every individual scale on the lizard, in Zbrush and Mudbox, to be able to bring out individual detail and give a little more displacement detail than we had in the past.  We were able to use vector-based displacement, which gave us some more varied surfaces than, say, a normal-based displacement, which you can only go in one direction.  So in essence it was hand sculpted with a modeling sculpting tool, but obviously it was done in the computer.

We were basically painting or sculpting with the toolsets.  We started with the head because that’s the most important place and we stamped out some design patterns on the rest of the lizard.  But you know, every time we realized, “Well we’re going to get close to that area, we’re going to get close to that area, we’re going to get close to that area,” we just went back in and painstakingly took out any sort of procedural repetitive patterning and gave it individual detail for any given specific area that we referenced from the large library of lizard reference.

We looked at the reflectant qualities like the iridescence and how the light would transfer through thinner parts or thicker parts of the Lizard.  And then, how rough it was and how wet it was.  So again, for each one of those aspects time was spent testing, how far to push it, how much to include and, finally, trying to find a nice balance where nothing was too over the top. 

Dan: That amount of detail, just at the scale level, seems like a huge amount of work. 

David: Yeah.  There are only a few shots that you get really, really close to see, but you know, we built up gunk on some scales, and the occasional scale would be lifting off of the surface, so it had a flaky quality to it.  Sometimes we did get up close and you can actually see those details. But I think you also feel that detail when you back up from it. The skin doesn’t get all smooth and shiny looking.  The little details that are hard to see at that distance kind of help…

Dan: The overall visual look...

Dave: Yeah.  They keep it really complex and so it looks more realistic, because all of our reference of real lizards had those complex details, whether you had a distance or close up view of it.  So really a lot of work went into that.  The other thing where the Komodo dragon reference came in a little more was in the movement, particularly how the loose, leathery skin of the larger lizards works.  It’s tough skin that they have in the protected areas.  It’s a little bit thin and a little more malleable in and around the jaw or in the neck and the belly area.  But the outer part of the neck was more leathery and had this looseness to it, so the muscle structure and physiology underneath it could move around and still be thick and protective for his environment. 

The reference studies that were very important, to help with a complexity that’s always been a challenge, is how skin slides over muscles.  His movement was most important to making it feel like a lizard of that scale, all the while with his humanistic characteristics not taking over.  You had some nice influences of these large lizard movements underneath that, because his physiology, his structure, except for his tail, was much more humanistic or humanoid.  The muscle movement was more based on human anatomy, his biceps, his forearm muscles, his mastoids in the neck area were very human like.  So it was important that we had on top of all that physiology the characteristic of the loose, leathery skin.

Dan: You mentioned Zbrush and Mudbox.  Can you tell me a little bit about any special tools or systems you used? Anything new you created that was needed to capture the level of detail that you brought to this character?

David: We relied heavily on the sculpting capabilities of Mudbox.  But what we created was a character that had I think 128 million polys.  We can’t render that amount of geometry.  It’s just too much to calculate.  So we translated a lot of that into displacement.  We needed to write tools where we could take advantage of that sculpting detail and be able in our shaders to render that much detail and variation in the surface of the character.

There were new shaders that we wrote to take advantage of that in our Open Shading Language that we use in Arnold.  That kind of detail coupled with physically-based rendering properties that we have in Arnold give us a much truer rendering representation of reality in the digital rendering.

We upgraded the options that we have for subsurface scattering, so that we’re doing true ray traced subsurface scattering that includes both forward scattering and backscattering depending on the part or the physiology of the lizard.  In some cases, for his inner gums, teeth and finger nails, we did use forward scattering techniques. For the body we were able to ray trace and include volumes within the lizard’s model.  We were able to put in additional geometries that allowed us to shoot and occlude rays that are more true to the deep tissue and physiology that any creature would have, but specific to our lizard.

The other place where we included some new technologies was within the eyes.  We have been developing much more physically-based geometry for the eyes, as well as how that geometry is rigged in our characters.  You kind of see this theme I keep bringing up, not just using our physically based ray tracing renderer Arnold, but building stuff much more true to real physical characteristics, that real objects and creatures have, that just gives us a much truer and realistic rendering than we’ve been able to have in the past.  The way the light bounces around in the eye, refracts off the surfaces, is just much more physically based in the real world and is getting us better results.

Dan: Were there any particular challenges creating a straight digital character rather than using motion-capture? 

David: None of the Lizard was done with motion capture, because there was enough of a difference from the physiology of a human and what we have for the lizard both in the face and his tail.  We didn’t think there was anything we would gain from motion capture.  What was important was the video reference we shot specific for scenes where the lizard character was all digital.  We shot video reference of Rhys Ifans doing his interpretation of how he would have performed it.  That was probably the best source of inspiration for the animators.

They took that and they applied it to the new and different physiology. It’s a somewhat artistic interpretation, but driven by the directive performance of Marc Webb to Rhys Ifans and his take on the character.  It’s the study of those very specific sources and also the study of some additional footage that we shot of Rhys as Dr. Connors.  But I think it’s really the artistic abilities of our animators, how they’re able to bring the character to life.  It doesn’t line up one-to-one specifically with an actor.

Dan: Tell me about the makeup of the team needed to tackle the Lizard.

David: Our lookdev and texture painting team, there were probably upwards of eight people that worked on the look of the character. That’s in addition to the support of our whole shader department that’s writing the technology to be able to update our renderings that we talked about. We had two guys that were focused on the rigging of the character.  A lot out of our toolsets were already built, and those are supported by a development team The animation teams, there were probably 40 animators that worked with the Lizard.  Not exclusively, they probably worked on Spiderman as well.  Our color and lighting teams are not necessarily specific to just one part of the film.

Dan: Right.

David: I mean the lookdev teams are very specific to the character.  There were eight guys that contributed to texture painting, surface quality, around the eyes, all of the details we’ve talked about earlier.  That process took, before we had final lizards in shots, and that was even without some of the details we came up with afterwards, probably six-months to get a creature like that, to the state where he was being finaled. It took a while.

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