VFX supervisor Kevin Souls leads Los Angeles and Melbourne teams handling almost 500 key shots on the first ‘Spider-Man’ film within the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Spider-Man: Homecoming marks the first solo adventure for the teenage superhero within the Marvel Cinematic Universe. For the Los Angeles and Melbourne studios of Luma Pictures, it meant 11 sequences and just under 500 VFX shots. Luma VFX supervisor Kevin Souls has been involved with every movie incarnation of the webslinger, from Tobey Maguire to Andrew Garfield to Tom Holland. The latest film takes our hero’s physicality in a considerably different direction. “Spider-Man, whenever you see him in the previous movies, has been athletic, ripped, and coordinated to some extent,” notes Souls. “This time around, they had to figure out how he was going to run and jump. There’s a particular motion to Tom Holland [the actor playing Spider-Man]. He’s a dancer and acrobat. Tom brings a certain amount of slapstick physicality to the role. A big part of the film was making Spider-Man a gawky teenager.”
In one sequence, the Suburban Chase, Spider-Man pursues a van through a residential neighbourhood. According to Souls, “We shot a van driving through the streets of an Atlanta neighborhood, at high speed, at night. The van was dragging a stunt actor in a Spider-Man costume. Spider-Man runs through backyards either as Tom Holland or the stunt actor. Then there was drone photography taken over the top of the houses to give an idea of what it might be like for Spider-Man to run and jump from rooftop to rooftop. The majority of the sequence was envisioned as plate photography. It was either Spider-Man in costume running through with rig removal and/or suit clean-up, or it was a plate where we would be inserting a CG Spider-Man. As the scenes were edited we were replacing whole shots with full CG representations of the surroundings.”
“We did LiDAR and texture acquisitions so we had a good idea of the layout of the streets and the houses,” Souls continues. “We built a tile world sky dome where we could match up the look and feel of the sky from the surrounding plates, then add CG trees, atmosphere, streetlights, everything from the ground up. We had to modify the drone photography significantly to make the footage look like it was nighttime, augment it with digital props and trees, get it to match the surrounding shots, add in a digital version of Spider-Man when needed, and then sew it all together. The biggest challenge was the sheer diversity of the lighting. Every shot was a custom look.”
As the sequence progresses, Spider-Man is about to land on the roof of the van, but gets grabbed by the Vulture. “We built the neighbourhood from above so that we could match up the houses and streets,” Souls explains. “There were also large matte paintings, so when we were high up in the air and the camera was spinning around, we’d feel as if in proper perspective looking down on Queens. We started with Google Earth Maps to figure out how fast the Vulture was going, how high he would need to be, and to see what the scale and perspective of the city would be as he progressed upwards. It was at night, so we had to match up the way the city lights would bloom and the cars would streak to the real aerial photography. then insert on top of that Spider-Man and the Vulture flying through the air with atmospheric clouds. We had a vapour trail coming off Vulture’s wings to make them feel as if they were there.”
Vulture, Spider-Man’s flying nemisis, was a complicated asset. Notes Souls, “Our version of Vulture came from Digital Domain. They did all the modelling and texturing. It was handed over to us, where we did our own rigging and animation. You essentially have a man who is fully articulated and attached to this big metal wing suit that is militaristic and has these massive turbines to steer it around. There’s the challenge of how does he move with weight, how does he steer himself around, and how does he fight in these close quarters wearing this heavy suit that is slow to move and react. On top of that, you have a guy hanging from it.”
There was no real-life footage for use as reference. “On the Internet, you can find these funny little things like waterjet platforms that people ride around on, and a couple of turbine backpacks,” says Soul. “But. nothing quite like this. When you’re working in a place where you can go anywhere, it’s hard to find that valley of believability where, ‘I buy that object moving around in space, but we’re also hitting all of the beats that they want to hit.’”
In one key sequence, Spider-Man gets dropped by the Vulture and parachutes into a lake. “He lands in front of a bridge with a big virtual splash,” Souls describes. “There were complex matte paintings for the environment and the bridge, and day for night color correction to completely restore the plate. We wanted to hold onto the water because it was pretty nice, with some good foreground elements. Then once he’s in the water, it goes to tank photography of a stuntman in a Spider-Man costume wrapped in a parachute, sinking. We greatly augmented the footage, adding silt, rocks, pebbles, little sticks, and debris in the water so that it would feel like you were in a murky lake.”
Next, Spider-Man gets saved, and lectured to, by Iron Man. Says Souls, “Iron Man got a modest suit upgrade. The build of Iron Man was pulled from ILM into Digital Domain, which did a revision to the textures. Then, it was shipped over to us. We built our own rig and did some look development. There’s a flight over the water that is fully virtual, then the two have a conversation sitting by a jungle gym, with a fully digital Iron Man used the entire time.”
Interesting enough, Tony Stark is not present in New York. “We had plate photography of Robert Downey Jr. walking around India and gesturing to people around him,” Souls notes. “Those gestures then had to be matched into our animation, so when they intercut the footage, Iron Man would be doing the same thing that Tony Stark was doing in India, like holding a drink or pointing at someone. We were eye matching and animating to it.”
For the ATM Heist sequence, Luma VFX supervisor Brendan Seals lead the studio team. According to Souls, “The close quarters fight between Spider-Man and the baddies was shot on location in Queens on an ATM set. Tom Holland was on-set in a suit. They predicted what Spider-Man’s moves were going to be, got the bad guys in the right location, and had them react to something that wasn’t there in the hope that we could put a CG character on top and get it all to sync up. They did a full acquisition of textures and LiDAR so we had the geometry and enough textures to build a virtual bank.”
“There are some heavy effects in that sequence,” Souls continues. “The bad guys are using alien weaponry to dismantle the ATMs. Part of the fun of the gravity gun was they could point it at Spider-Man, pick him up off the ground and throw him around like a ragdoll. The overriding animation direction for that sequence was to be slapstick, over the top, and to make all of the impacts really hurt.” Additional footage was needed to allow for more dynamic virtual camera moves. “We matched up the lighting as best we could, got the baddies in specific positions, and composited them and Spider-Man into the virtual set to make the fight feel more like a coordinated series of dominos falling down. Editorially, Spider-Man would jump back up fast. Sometimes, his arm would be above his head, the other arm would be off to the side, and it would almost look like a cartoon splat against the wall. Amusing stuff,” Souls notes.
A montage of shots is used for effect as Spider-Man attempts to impress mentor Tony Stark with his crime fighting capabilities. “There was a series of B-roll scenes, shot around New York City, of Spider-Man running around doing funny stuff, which allowed the animators to have a great time,” remarks Souls. “Here’s a shot of Spider-Man riding on top of a train. Here’s a shot of Spider-Man walking along a wire between a water tower and a building. A lot of these scenes were just random takes that they made a sequence out of. Every shot is a one off. We also did a lot of augmentation to the plates with matte paintings so that they would match up with the rest of the sequence.”
One of hardest shots in the entire movie occurs at the beginning of the Crime Fighting Sequence, when Holland runs into a grungy alleyway, pulls a floppy Spider-Man suit out of his backpack, puts it on, and presses the chest logo, causing the costume to become form-fitting. Complicating matters was the decision to entirely replace the practical suit with a digital version. Notes Souls, “It was months of work. My CG supervisor Alex Cancado and I spent hours looking at simulations and figuring out when things were popping. We then went back to re-simulate and re-sculpt. Once we got the render right, there was integration with the photography and making sure that the matting was right, and that the neck sat on it correctly. The hardest part was making the suit look good when it’s loose and tight, when you take CG and stretch it out for really large textures, surfaces, and displacement breakdowns. As a result, we had to produce multiple versions of the suit, so when we transitioned between them, you wouldn’t notice a difference in the quality of the textures and material. It took a lot of iterations.”
“In addition, they wanted us to make it the dirtiest alley you have ever seen,” Souls continues. “We replaced the real dumpster with a digital version that had garbage spilling out. We added digital garbage throughout the alleyway to make it feel grimier and dirtier. We added mosquitoes, flies, cockroaches and rats that would suddenly run off in the background. We tried to give it as much rich detail as we could. The biggest challenge with a shot like that is the length. When you’re talking about a shot that is 45 to 50 seconds long, if there’s a mistake, you’re re-rendering the whole thing as well as having to keep the continuity of geometry for that many frames. There were no in-camera transitions available. Tom Holland didn’t walk behind anything. We used the original camera up until the end of the shot, where we do a reprojection and digital recreation of the plate so we don’t have to move the camera the same way.”
The Damage Control Sequence with the Vulture and Spider-Man fighting on top of a speeding semi-truck was originally envisioned as plate photography. However, that changed as the sequence went through production. “They shut down a mile section of road, had a tractor trailer truck, stunt guys in costumes with wire rigs, and shot the fight scene,” explains Souls. “However, it didn’t feel dynamic enough. We started bit by bit replacing shots with digital versions. We ended up using a lot of the photography as reference.”
Achieving proper articulation and weight for the Vulture was difficult. Says Souls, “It had to feel like the Vulture was trying to attack Spider-Man. However, he can’t just crash into the side of the truck and move that quickly. It was this constant balancing act. We wanted him to fly across and take a swipe at Spider-Man, but with enough weight and momentum so that it felt like this is a heavy object he is trying to steer.” The camera movement had to be grounded in reality, so the inspiration was the Russian Arm, which is an SUV like a Mercedes or Porsche driving at high speed with a big crane on top. “The virtual camera can’t go straight across. It has to rotate around. Almost make it arc around the side of the truck because that’s what the real camera would do. We ended up designing all of the camera moves to make them feel as if they were being shot from a car next door,” says Souls.
“We did the highest shot count of any facility on this movie,” Souls notes. “Our shot count went from less than 400 up to just under 500, and a lot of that swell happened during the last two months. It was a challenge with the various environments. You were either talking about fully digital, mixing with plate photography, or you have a scene where every shot is an one off.” Changes to Luma’s workflow were made to accommodate the production’s difficulty. “We used two different lighting software programs for the movie, Maya and Katana,” he explains. “We had never used Katana before. By the time the movie was finished, we had done about 100 shots or more running fully virtual environments through Katana.”
Souls is pleased with how the Damage Control Sequence turned out. “We built a fully digital environment that every now and then intercut with plate photography. There were moments where I didn’t know the difference between our trees and the trees that were in the plate. The Suburban Chase is long and funny, with call backs to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Spider-Man does everything from smash into a pool, run through fences, get attacked by a dog, and wave to people. The ATM is most akin to a Jackie Chan fight scene, where one motion leads to the next motion which leads to this guy going ‘splat’ on the ground. Very slapstick.”