Sony Pictures Imageworks was one of several studios — including Method and Luma — that contributed visual effects services to the newest Spider-Man film, Spider-Man: Homecoming, from Columbia Pictures, released in theaters earlier this month. Directed by Jon Watts, the film stars Tom Holland as the young web slinger, who is now being mentored by The Avengers’ Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.). A new villain — the Vulture (played by Michael Keaton) — emerges, threatening everything Peter Parker holds important to him.
Sony Pictures Imageworks’ VFX supervisor Theo Bialek worked on both 2012’s The Amazing Spider-Man and 2014’s
The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and has witnessed the franchise’s evolution.
“Certain things are a little bit easier,” says Bialek. “You can build off your previous [developments], your Web technology, even though there is a subtle difference in the look. We are matching this film to a look that ILM developed on Civil War.
“You don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he continues. “And of course, you learn the more films you do — whether it’s Spider-Man or any of the others — you learn more about the physiology of people as they move and make them try to do sort of impossible things. You gain experience in that and that’s what you build off of.”
As a VFX vendor brought in by Marvel and Sony, SPI was assigned approximately 300 of the film’s 1,500 shots.
“We had primarily the third act,” Bialek explains. “It’s the way they split it out among the vendors. They try to avoid as much overlap as possible and give each vendor specific sequences that play to our strengths.”
For Imageworks, that meant focusing on Spider-Man during the time he is wearing his home-made suit. “We also did the sequences where Vulture had his Mark II, more advanced suit,” Bialek adds.
SPI had a team of 163 artists working on the film throughout its production, which began in the summer of 2016 and entered major shot production last November/December before wrapping up post the end of May. The studio relies on Autodesk Maya for animation and rigging, SideFX Houdini for effects work, Foundry’s Katana for lighting and Arnold for rendering. Foundry’s Nuke is their compositing tool.
“And there are thousands and thousands of man hours of proprietary tools built on top of that,” says Bialek of Imageworks’ pipeline tools.
The studio employed Marvelous Designer to create Spider-Man’s early costume. “That tool allowed us to build the panels of cloth as a real piece of clothing would be built, with the proper patches…so you get a really clean model. It was kind of new for us to use that tool. Typically, we go to Maya and try to build it in a smart way. This tool sort of enforces a physically-accurate instruction, which means you get much better results when you actually build it physically correct.”
Bialek cites several scenes in the film that highlight the studio’s work — some being a mix of live action and CG, and others being fully-CG. The first sequence was the warehouse battle, which involved a combination of live-action and CG elements.
“The warehouse is mostly character stuff,” he reports. “The wing suit is obviously animated…Any time you see Spider-Man reacting to the wing suit inside the warehouse, it is CG. And that’s a particular case where we were able to utilize mocap more often than not because it was shot in a practical location and the planning was pretty spot on from the previs, to what they filmed, to what we mocap’d. That was really successful.”
The plane battle sequence is another heavy VFX scene created by Imageworks, and in this case, relied mostly on CG.
“It was decided early on that it was going to be a cloaked plane,” says Bialek of the design. “The plane has a cloaking device that makes it invisible. [That] in itself has a lot of intrinsic challenges. How do you make it interesting, where the main object that the characters are fighting on is supposed to be invisible? How do you make that compelling?
“They didn’t have a buy off on the design and how the lighting would work on this cloaked plane. Well, how do we shoot it? Do we shoot it practical and put a bunch of practical LED lights under the character? We don’t want to be locked in to something. We knew shooting it practically was going to be a real challenge, so we opted to do all-CG.”
In addition to the characters and the plane itself, the scene also incorporates CG clouds and sky.
The ultimate crash on the beach is a combination of elements.
“Once they crash on the beach, you are dealing with more of a hybrid situation,” he explains. The scene was shot on a sound stage in Georgia — what Bialek describes as a “big sandbox,” with gas lines, practical fire and plane wreckage strewn about.
“We [created] set extensions on top of that and layered on a ton of effects in between them to add some connective tissue between what is CG and what is live action.”