WEAVING THE INTRICATE WEB OF VFX SPUN BY HIGH-FLYING SPIDER-MAN: NO WAY HOME


By TREVOR HOGG

Images courtesy of Marvel Studios.

A new black and gold Spider-Man suit channels Eldritch magic.

On June 5, 1962, teenage angst accidentally combined with a radioactive arachnoid in a story published in Amazing Fantasy #15 by Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. Since then, there have been various incarnations of Spider-Man living in different dimensions, but the original one resides in New York City on Earth-616. Swinging from the comic-book page into the live-action domain, the Web Slinger first appeared on the children television show The Electric Company, with the mask and tights being donned by puppeteer and dancer Danny Seagren. Hollywood came knocking when Marvel sold the film rights to Cannon Films in 1985, and six years later James Cameron (The Terminator) submitted a 57-page scriptment. However, the ambition was undermined not by the Sinister Six but the financial collapse of the studio.

Multiverse chaos ensues when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to turn back time and interrupts the spell.

Multiverse chaos ensues when Peter Parker (Tom Holland) asks Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) to turn back time and interrupts the spell.

Subsequently, Marvel licensed the film rights to Columbia Pictures in 1999, paving the way for Sam Raimi (Army of Darkness) and Tobey Maguire to create a trilogy, with Spider-Man 2 (2004) often being listed as one of the greatest comic book adaptations. In 2012, the franchise was relaunched as The Amazing Spider-Man with Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer) and Andrew Garfield collaborating on a pair of installments. A dramatic shift occurred as the Marvel Cinematic Universe became a box-office juggernaut worthy of Thanos, and a deal was brokered between Marvel Studios and Sony Pictures Entertainment for Tom Holland to make his MCU debut as Peter Parker in Captain America: Civil War (2016) as well as a solo venture under the direction of Jon Watts (Cop Car).

Jamie Foxx returns as Electro to cause some multiverse havoc.

Jamie Foxx returns as Electro to cause some multiverse havoc.

“The concept art, previs and postvis has been essential when tackling a project like Spider-Man: No Way Home. We rely on such items as the initial stage to begin the digital builds, which can be quite time consuming. … [S]ince the assets from previous movies had been created years ago, most of these previous assets were used as a reference guide. Also, various visual effects elements associated with specific characters had to be re-developed, and some took on a different look per creative direction.”

—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks

Spider-Man: No Way Home concludes the MCU trilogy that features Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017) and Spider-Man: Far From Home (2019). The entire Hollywood cinematic history of the Wall Crawler becomes part of the storyline thanks to some ill-advised timeline tampering that unleashes the multiverse, thereby allowing the three big screen iterations of the franchise to merge into one blockbuster event. Unlike his reckless egocentric mentor, Tony Stark, the considerate and self-esteem-hampered Peter Parker had no intentions of revealing his secret to the world, but the right to do so was taken away from him when special effects artist turned villain Quentin Beck aka Mysterio frames the high schooler for his murder and reveals the true identity of Spider-Man.

One of the best performances in Spider-Man: No Way Home is Willem Dafoe reviving his role as the Green Goblin.

One of the best performances in Spider-Man: No Way Home is Willem Dafoe reviving his role as the Green Goblin.

Adding to the quota of villains are Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans).

Adding to the quota of villains are Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church) and Lizard (Rhys Ifans).

Unlike Spider-Man 2, which relied on mechanical arms being puppeteered for Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Spider-Man: No Way Home made use of CG.

Unlike Spider-Man 2, which relied on mechanical arms being puppeteered for Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Spider-Man: No Way Home made use of CG.

Unlike Spider-Man 2, which relied on mechanical arms being puppeteered for Dr. Otto Octavius (Alfred Molina), Spider-Man: No Way Home made use of CG.

A tabloid maelstrom worthy of the British Royal Family is unleashed, leading to Parker’s every move being the subject of public scrutiny and, in the process, making his friends and family targets of retribution from his growing list of enemies. Wishing his secret had never been revealed, Parker seeks out someone with the same curiosity and willingness to put aside caution as Stark, master of the mystic arts Doctor Strange. The challenge and perilous risk of turning back time is irresistible to Strange, and has second thoughts about his request and disrupts the spell. As a result, separate dimensions collide together bringing forth a multiverse where the multiple variations of the same person can co-exist within the same space.

Someone with a unique perspective on the project is Sony Pictures Imageworks Visual Effects Supervisor Chris Waegner (Men in Black: International) who partnered with Marvel Studios Visual Effects Supervisor Kelly Port (Beauty and the Beast), as well as with Digital Domain, Framestore, Luma Pictures, Crafty Apes, MR. X, Cinesite, Gradient FX, Folks VFX, SSVFX, MARZ and Perception to produce 2,400 shots. Waegner was an uncredited technical adviser on Spider-Man, a lead character setup artist on Spider-Man 2, CG Supervisor on The Amazing Spider-Man and The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Digital Effects Supervisor on Spider-Man: Homecoming. Comments Waegner, “The opportunity of having worked with three great directors and their creative teams on all cinematic franchises has been a wonderful experience. It has given me a wealth of knowledge that I’ve brought with me to the latest instalment depicting the multiverse in Spider-Man: No Way Home.”

“Fortunately, some of these concepts [in the new film] had been explored and visually developed within previous films, creating a visual language that fans can relate to. These previous films have become a great source that we were able to build upon. Often times, this requires new workflows, techniques and specific software development to ensure we meet the creative demands of the creative team.”

—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks

Like Webb, Jon Watts made a name for himself as an indie filmmaker with the crime thriller Cop Car (2015), revolving around two 10-years-olds taking an abandoned cop car for a joyride only to be pursued by a sheriff looking for the missing vehicle. Marvel Studios has gotten in the habit of choosing those with a proven indie track record rather than established Hollywood directors. One theory for this is that Marvel Studios can exert more control over the production, while others suggest that it has to do with the ability for indie filmmakers to develop empathetic characters which are what immerse audience members in the storyline, not the visual effects spectacles. “Jon Watts is very passionate about the story he’s telling and his characters,” notes Waegner. “He’s collaborative and at times will even act out specific actions he feels are important for these characters.” Watts has collaborated through the trilogy with The LEGO Batman Movie screenwriters Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers, twice with Special Effects Supervisor Daniel Sudick (Ant-Man and the Wasp), and welcomed Production Designer Darren Gilford (The King’s Man) and Cinematographer Mauro Fiore (X-Men: Dark Phoenix) into the fold.

An overseer of the overall aesthetic of the MCU since Iron Man (2008) is Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development, Marvel Studios. Upwards of 200 to 300 designs can be done for a character in the MCU before settling on the final version. “One of the fun parts of my job is the notion of knowing that the Iron Man suit could mean something different in the next movie, and figuring out how to make the character design a storytelling opportunity. Sometimes the storytelling is not that important, like the notion of Tony Stark’s armor getting more advanced. However, in other occasions, Captain America is wearing a shield outfit instead of a Captain America costume because he has left behind some of the patriotism that had been part of his previous looks.”

The web slinging and crawling techniques for Spider-Man get more refined with each film.

The web slinging and crawling techniques for Spider-Man get more refined with each film.

The web slinging and crawling techniques for Spider-Man get more refined with each film.

The web slinging and crawling techniques for Spider-Man get more refined with each film.

“The characters themselves all have their own unique style of VFX associated with their abilities. Since this franchise spans across many years, VFX styles for specific characters had to be reinvented, and in some cases refined/changed in order to craft a look toward Jon’s vision. Dr Otto Octavious had a small team associated just to him in order to resurrect the same visual demands with our modern software and pipeline. It was important to the filmmakers and fans that he literally matched to the previous movie.”

—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes the Astral Form of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), which is when the soul exists outside of the body in a parallel dimension.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes the Astral Form of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), which is when the soul exists outside of the body in a parallel dimension.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes the Astral Form of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), which is when the soul exists outside of the body in a parallel dimension.

Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) unleashes the Astral Form of Spider-Man (Tom Holland), which is when the soul exists outside of the body in a parallel dimension.

The Iron Spider Suit makes an appearance featuring a red, blue and gold color palette as well as the high-tech mechanical iron spider arms and nanobots that result in a quick suit transformation. “The concept art, previs and postvis has been essential when tackling a project like Spider-Man: No Way Home,” remarks Waegner. “We rely on such items as the initial stage to begin the digital builds, which can be quite time consuming.” For the most part, adds Waegner, the visual effects created for the previous films were not leveraged, as the technology is constantly evolving. “In some cases, yes, but since the assets from previous movies had been created years ago, most of these previous assets were used as a reference guide. Also, various visual effects elements associated with specific characters had to be re-developed, and some took on a different look per creative direction.”

Magic and the multiverse had their own unique technical challenges. “Concepts like the multiverse require quite a bit of visual research on many levels,” states Waegner. “It’s very important to create something the audience can relate to and is visually fresh. Hours have been spent going through visual media, which can be scientifically-based art concepts and found media, to help create images that are special to the show.” Adding an element of surrealism is the Astral Form, Eldritch magic, portals and Mandelbroting associated with Doctor Strange, leading to the various dimensional versions of the train sequence taking place at the same time. “Fortunately,” says Waegner, “some of these concepts had been explored and visually developed within previous films, creating a visual language that fans can relate to. These previous films have become a great source that we were able to build upon.” Most films requiring high-concept, intense visual effects will need development. “Often times,” Waegner observes, “this requires new workflows, techniques and specific software development to ensure we meet the creative demands of the creative team.

“Sony Picture Imageworks completed approximately 600 shots and many digital assets, with a production time of 10 months,” continues Waegner. “The digital scope of this show is quite vast. We shared many of our digital assets and several were shared with us. Modern software and technology have allowed the ‘shared asset’ concept to work much smoother these days between different VFX facilities.”

A major part of the visual effects centers around the supernatural powers. “The characters themselves all have their own unique style of VFX associated with their abilities,” states Waegner. “Since this franchise spans across many years, VFX styles for specific characters had to be reinvented, and in some cases refined/changed in order to craft a look toward Jon’s vision.” Digital effects have come such a long way that the practical arms which were puppeteered during the making of Spider-Man 2 for Doc Ock are now a CG creation, and de-aging has become a standard practice for the MCU. Says Waegner, “Dr.  Otto Octavious had a small team associated just to him in order to resurrect the same visual demands with our modern software and pipeline. It was important to the filmmakers and fans that he literally matched to the previous movie.”

“Having worked on all the previous films, our web slinging and crawling techniques seem to get more refined with each film. In this case some small refinements were implemented achieving the same great results. The efficiencies in this area allowed the team to focus on other needs for the show.”

—Chris Waegner, Visual Effects Supervisor, Sony Pictures Imageworks

There can be no Spider-Man without web shootings, webbing and gravity-defying action. “Having worked on all the previous films, our web slinging and crawling techniques seem to get more refined with each film,” notes Waegner. “In this case some small refinements were implemented achieving the same great results. The efficiencies in this area allowed the team to focus on other needs for the show.”

If Spider-Man: No Way Home can channel the critical and box-office success of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, one can expect more multiverse scenarios populating the MCU, as it will literally allow for different dimensions of characters to be explored which will result in unlimited storytelling possibilities. “On a show like this,” says Waegner, “the biggest challenge is to always meet the visual needs of our director and the adoring fans. There’s such a deep rich history with these characters and their individual stories throughout the entire franchise. It’s our responsibility to raise the bar and set a new standard for the franchise.”

2,400 visual effects shots were produced with the magic and the multiverse creating their own set of creative and technical challenges.

2,400 visual effects shots were produced with the magic and the multiverse creating their own set of creative and technical challenges.

2,400 visual effects shots were produced with the magic and the multiverse creating their own set of creative and technical challenges.

2,400 visual effects shots were produced with the magic and the multiverse creating their own set of creative and technical challenges.

2,400 visual effects shots were produced with the magic and the multiverse creating their own set of creative and technical challenges.



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