Issue: Volume: 25 Issue: 9 (September 2002)

Spidey's Newest Leap

By Karen Moltenbrey

A compelling computer-generated ren dition of Spider-Man certainly proved its mettle at the box office this summer. But for decades, a stylized, hand-drawn version of the webbed avenger captivated and enthralled readers as the superhero battled evil-doers on the pages of comic books. Now, Blue Dream Studios (Thousand Oaks, CA) has transformed the 2D character into 3D for a new series of CG comic books from Marvel Comics.

"Nothing like this has been done before in least not to this extent," says Scott Christian Sava, owner of Blue Dream Studios. "CGI gives Spider-Man a whole new look. The images jump right off the pages."

The first issue in the four-book series, called Spider-Man: Quality of Life, was released to coincide with the May debut of Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Imageworks' Spider-Man feature film. Since then, Sava and his team have been generating a page of approximately six or seven frames of 3D still images a day for each book. The fourth book recently hit comic book shops and newsstands.

Sava, a traditionally trained artist, worked as an illustrator before migrating to 3D animation for television and film projects. He has also produced comic book cover art and X-Men trading cards, "but I never got the big break of doing Spider-Man, which was my dream." Not long ago, Sava-a "huge" Spider-Man fan-spoke with Marv Wolfman, a well-known comic book writer, and following Marv's suggestion, created samples of a CG Spidey. "Marvel loved it, and the next thing I knew, I was doing the comic book miniseries," recalls Sava.

Using Discreet's 3ds max software and Boxx Technologies' 3DBoxx workstations with an Nvidia Quadro4 900 XGL graphics card, Sava's team has generated more than 1000 frames and nearly 100 pages of imagery for Quality of Life. "Doing a full-CG comic book at this level is a new venture, so staying true to the comic book medium and storytelling while adhering to the limitations of CGI has been challenging," Sava says. To deliver the frames at print resolution required powerful hardware, especially for rendering. Once Sava switched to the Boxx system after producing the first issue, his rendering times were reduced from 14 minutes a frame to 45 seconds.

"As a result, I can produce two to three pages a day if I need to," Sava says. "And because the rendering is so fast, I can go back and tweak the lighting if I want, whereas before there wasn't enough time to make changes like that. The hardware definitely made a big difference in this project."
The popular 2D comic book character Spider-Man has been transformed to 3D for Marvel's new comic book series Quality of Life, created by digital artists at Blue Dream Studios.

The Digital Process
According to Sava, creating the Quality of Life comic books in 3D has numerous advantages, such as an increased work flow. How ever, most of the benefits could not be reaped until months into the project, after the initial modeling, texturing, rigging, and lighting had been done. "Once you have the established set of characters and environments created, you can produce the pages fairly quickly," he says. "Until then, it's a slow and costly process."

To help him create the series, Sava hired a small group that assisted with the overall designs and models. "If the object didn't exist, it had to be made," he notes. "And in the beginning, nothing existed." To tackle the project, the artists approached it like they would a low-budget, full-CG animated movie. After receiving a script from a Marvel writer, the group created pre-production art, storyboards, layouts, and character designs, then modeled, textured, and rigged all the characters and environments. Once the art assets were generated, Sava constructed each frame used to tell the story.

"In the beginning, it took nearly three months to create a page because nothing was built," says Sava. "Now, if we have all the models, it only takes an hour."
The Quality of Life Spidey maintains his stylized comic book roots, sporting exceptionally large eyes, hands, and feet.

The group used 3ds max to create the images, which were procedurally textured to give them a stylized rather than photorealistic look. In the beginning, Sava reviewed software that would provide a cartoon-shaded look to the images, but decided against using it. "We didn't want to fool people into thinking the images were 2D," he says. "We wanted a 3D look, but not one that was photoreal-and that was difficult to do."

Sava maintained this balance by giving many of the objects, such as the walls and ceilings, a flat appearance. "Normally, you'd texture everything with bump maps, specularity maps, and so on. By just using procedural maps and leaving a lot of empty space in the environments, the viewer can focus on the characters rather than on the intricate backgrounds," he adds. "Antero Pedras and Adrian Hartrey, the environmental modelers, hated me for asking them to dummy down the textures. But after they saw the first issue come together and realized where I was going with it, they pushed them even further." Additionally, modeler Marcello Bortolino gave all the characters especially large eyes, feet, and hands-another cartoon-like trait.

Yet, one characteristic that distinguishes the digitally created Quality of Life comic books from their hand-drawn counterparts is the lighting. Sava studied feature films such as A Bug's Life and Monsters, Inc. to get a feel for non-photorealistic CG lighting and rendering-in particular, how the rim lighting and shadow tones were accomplished. "I noticed that in Monsters, Inc., the artists used blues and lavenders in their shadows, which was something I liked very much," he says. "You can actually see my learning process in this area throughout the progression of the series."
The 3D software's rigging systems could not always accommodate the comic book character's unnatural body contortions. In those instances, the artist had to hand-paint the limbs.

Each frame on a comic page was rendered as a separate layer in 3ds max. Using a script created by Pedras, Sava was able to render out his frames and isolate any character's alpha channels, which allowed him to add depth-of-field blurs or even show animated versions of Spidey in a single frame, without adversely affecting the rendering times.

The team also used Cebas Computer's finalRender ambient lighting software, a global-illumination plug-in, to achieve a more naturally lit environment on the final render pass. Yet, when the lighting was combined with the lavender-hued shadows, it created a subtle comic book-like look for the imagery. According to Sava, those who are unfamiliar with CGI seem to be most impressed with the reflections in the 3D series. "They think it's the coolest thing, and it's just a matter of pressing a button to make them," he notes. "While reflections are not new to CGI, they are new to the Spider-Man comic book readers."
While the characters seem to pop off the pages with their three-dimensional appearance, many of the backgrounds maintain the flat, two-dimensional look of traditional comic books.

For the most part, Sava generated each frame using still images, but in some instances, he animated the shot, using sequential keyframes, which he then incorporated into a page scene. Using CGI also enabled the artist to look at the scenes from various viewpoints so he could select the best one. "Having a movable camera enables me to explore the scene from a cinemagraphic point of view, to achieve more creative angles-something that could not be done in 2D because of time constraints," says Sava. "Also, if the editors later requested a different type of angle, all I had to do was reposition the camera and then re-render the shot, whereas if it were hand-drawn, the entire frame would've been lost."

Spidey's CG Appearance
Far from the photorealistic Spider-Man model used in the feature film, the Quality of Life Spidey is more stylized, similar to the original 2D comic book character. "We were able to give the superhero character a stylized look by doing all the things they do in hand-drawn comics, including all those crazy poses Spidey does," says Sava. The job of helping Sava achieve Spidey's cartoon-like appearance fell to Tracy Mark Lee, a former Disney artist and character designer.

To create Spider-Man's unique poses, Sava mainly used 3ds max along with Discreet's character studio. Often though, Spider-Man contorts in ways that few software rigging systems can handle, despite the efforts by rigger Scott Hyman. For instance, to accomplish the contortion-like positions in the feature film, the Imageworks artists created an expensive, elaborate rigging system. For the comic book series, though, Sava had to make the necessary changes by hand in postproduction. "Many times I'd have to rely on my illustration background, and get out my Wacom tablet and paint in the shoulders or legs," he notes. "And so far, no one has been able to tell that this was done."

According to Sava, the biggest challenge in creating the series was staying true to fans' expectations for such a beloved character. "They were instantly skeptical about 3D," he notes. One of the difficulties was overcoming the creative cheats that occur in 2D-such as foreshortening of limbs-that fans are familiar with and associate with the general look of the character. To accomplish that same type of illusion in 3D, Sava scaled up various body parts, such as Spidey's hands, even further. "We lovingly called it the 'Kirby Effect' after comic book legend Jack Kirby, who is well known for this technique."
When creating the 3D Spider-Man comic book series, artist Scott Christian Sava mimicked non-photorealistic lighting and rendering techniques used in recent CG feature films.

"I grew up with a hand-drawn Spider-Man, and for me to be the one to take him into 3D [on the comic book pages] was scary," admits Sava. However, the reaction of fans, for the most part, has been positive, he adds, though there are some "purists" that are having a hard time accepting the CG version. Not surprisingly, the most enthusiastic group seems to be children and teens, who are used to seeing 3D in computer games and films. "I've been told by reviewers, comic book shop owners, and distributors that the series is a big hit with the younger audience, which doesn't seem to have a preconceived notion as to what a comic book 'should' look like," says Sava. "Conversely, people who are my age, in their 30s, grew up with penciled and inked comic books, and that's what looks normal to us."

In fact, everyone seems to "see" something different in the 3D series-from the extraordinary details in each frame, to the variety of backgrounds, to the dynamic lighting. "In 3D, every frame is rendered perfectly," says Sava. "The computer doesn't get bored and pass over a certain section, so each frame is crisp and full of life, and the colors are as vibrant in one frame as they are in the next."

For Marvel, using CGI also streamlines the production process. Previously, the company would receive pencil drawings daily, which were then sent to an inker, and later the images would be scanned and sent to a colorist. By using digital content creation tools, Sava is able to deliver a finalized, fully colored page each day. "I sit down in the morning, open a scene, bring up my layouts and color palette, do the poses, tweak the lights, add some morph target expressions, render it, and I'm done," he explains.

Because the creation process is now much faster and easier with all the preliminary production work in place, Sava has expressed his interest to Marvel in creating a monthly computer-generated Spider-Man comic book. Whether Marvel will agree most likely hinges on the success of the Quality of Life series. But judging from Spidey's successful foray into 3D within both the printed and film media, his CG future looks promising.

Karen Moltenbrey is a senior associate editor at Computer Graphics World.

Spider-Man Tool Vendors
Boxx Technologies infoNOW 56
Cebas Computer infoNOW 57
Discreet infoNOW 58
Nvidia infoNOW 59