Role of a Lifetime
Marc Loftus
September 18, 2017

Role of a Lifetime

Sony Pictures Imageworks was one of several studios – including Method and Luma – that contributed visual effects to the new Spider-Man film from Columbia Pictures. Directed by Jon Watts,  Spider-Man: Homecoming  stars Tom Holland as the young webslinger, 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.

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 progression. “Certain things are a little easier,” he says. “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.”

As Bialek points out, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. “The more films you do – whether it’s Spider-Man or others – you learn more about the physiology of people as they move and make them try to do sort of impossible things,” he says. “You gain experience in that, and that’s what you build off of.”

As a VFX vendor brought in by Marvel and Sony, Imageworks handled close to 300 of the film’s 2,000 shots, primarily in the third act.

For Imageworks, that meant focusing on Spider-Man when he is wearing his homemade suit. “We also did the sequences where Vulture had his Mark II, more advanced suit,” Bialek adds.

At Imageworks, 163 artists worked on the film throughout its production. The studio relies on Autodesk’s Maya for animation and rigging, Side Effects’ Houdini for effects work, Foundry’s Katana for lighting, and Autodesk’s Arnold for rendering. Foundry’s Nuke is used for compositing. Imageworks also uses many proprietary tools.

The studio employed CLO Virtual Fashion’s 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,” says Bialek. “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.”

Scenes from Imageworks

Bialek highlights the studio’s work – some being a mix of live action and CG, and others being fully CG. The first sequence is the warehouse battle, which involved a combination of live action and CG elements. “The warehouse is mostly character stuff,” says Bialek. “The wing suit is obviously animated. Any time you see Spider-Man reacting to the wing suit inside the warehouse, it is CG. 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.”

The plane battle sequence is another heavy-VFX scene by Imageworks, and it relied mostly on CGI. “The plane has a cloaking device that makes it invisible. [That] in itself has a lot of intrinsic challenges,” says Bialek. “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?”

According to Bialek, the group didn’t have a buy-off on the design and how the lighting would work on the plane. “How do we shoot it? Practical, and put a bunch of practical LED lights under the character? We don’t want to be locked into something,” he says. “We knew shooting it practically was going to be a real challenge, so we opted to do all-CG for the shots on top of the plane.”

Aside from the characters and the plane, the scene also incorporates CG clouds and sky.

Meanwhile, the ultimate crash on the beach is a combination of elements. “Once they crash, it is more of a hybrid situation,” Bialek explains. The scene was shot on a soundstage in Georgia – what he 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 to add some connective tissue between what is CG and what is live action.”

Over the past decade and a half, audiences have witnessed various stages of Spider-Man’s superhero journey, and all of them have featured memorable villains of all sorts and even more memorable visual effects. And Spider-Man: Homecoming is no different.