Under the Radar

Creating the VFX for 'Amazing Spider-Man 2'

Andrew Garfield

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens here in the USA this weekend. The second movie in the latest series featuring the Marvel superhero stars Andrew Garfield and directed by Marc Webb.

There's a lot of plot in this movie: Spider-Man opens the movie by confronting Rhino, a/k/a Russian mobster Aleksei Sytsevich (played by Paul Giamatti). The movie then revisits Peter Parker's relationship with Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone) and gives the full backstory for Electro before Spider-Man confronts him in a final showdown. There's also a lot of Harry Osborn story development that'll pay off in a third movie still to come.

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We talked to the movie's Animation Supervisor David Schaub about the challenges his team from Sony Pictures Imageworks faced in creating effects for the movie, how they designed Paul Giamatti's Rhino character and how our interested readers can best prepare for a career in his field.

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So describe to our readers what your job was in making the movie.

I'm the animation supervisor on the film. If you think of the full scope of what that is, we start from the very beginning, looking after the build of the characters, not necessarily the design of the characters. That’s more of a production thing. Our job is more the technical aspects of getting the characters and the controls built so that we can get the performances that the director is looking for, sort of getting a sense for what the characters actually need to do and making sure that our characters are built in a way that actually supports that.

We get involved early on with the director to build that relationship, so we're all speaking the same language. I try to get inside his head so I can interpret the direction accurately. That’s all very front-end stuff. As the process evolves, we bring on a team of lead animators.

On this movie, we had four lead animators on the show, and three of them were in Vancouver and one here in Culver City. That’s another relationship that needs to be bonded, so that we're all, again, speaking the same language.

Andrew Garfield

Then we start doing performance tests. How does the character move? We knew how Spider-Man needed to move, because it was based on what we had done on the last movie. But if there are any new characters, we'll start doing that exploration and get tests over to the director early on. The we just do a lot of back and forth until we get the movement style nailed.

When we go into production, we will bring on a team of animators. In this case, I think we were up to about 80 animators at one point. As we get into production, we'll do lots and lots of iterations of animation. It's not uncommon that we'll do five or six different versions of a piece of animation, much like how the director would work with actors on set. He might do five or six takes of a single line of dialogue, each one, you know, interesting in its own way, but it really depends on how that particular take cuts into the story. So we'll do multiple iterations until it fits the story that he's looking for. Over time, I think leads and the animator start to develop an intuitive sense for what it is we're after on the show.

Film Review Spider-Man 2

Technology has evolved really quickly over the last few years. At this point, when you’re putting together an action sequence, how much of Spider-Man is Andrew Garfield and how much is animated?

In the action sequences, it's all animated. He’s obviously doing all the close-up performances. When we get into the edit, and they start consolidating and trimming down the story and really zeroing in, there are many occasions I think you'll look at the performances. With some close-up performances, it’s a digital character, but you'd never know it. The director got in there and decided he needed an extra piece of action or a little bit of business that wasn’t actually shot.

We have the ability to get in there and do these close-up digital performances where audiences would never be able to tell the difference. It's a handful of things, but it's just knowing that we have the ability to do that frees up the director a little bit so he doesn’t have to panic if he doesn’t have exactly what he wants from the close-up performances in the can.

Any time Spider-Man takes the leap and goes into swinging action, that’s all animation.

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How much has the technology changed since the last round of Spider-Man movies in the early 2000’s?

Certainly things get a lot faster. We're able to do a lot more in a shorter period of time. We're evolving the technology, depending on what's needed. It's about the challenges that are presented to us and we ask, “How on Earth are we gonna pull this off?” We honestly go into these things with no idea how we're gonna pull it off, but we also have confidence knowing we have some really smart and talented people on our crew and we'll figure it out.

An example would be the cloth simulation. I'm just thinking of new technology that we have on this show that’s different than last time. Traditionally, when you think of cloth simulation, it's more of a drapery that flows and it has a natural organic feel to it. A character’s cape is a classic example of something that would be a cloth simulation.

Andrew Garfield;Dane DeHaan

On the last Spider-Man, there really wasn’t a solution for the tight form-fitting cloth. We solved that because we needed that kind of simulation on the lizard skin, because we saw the lizard close-up and, as it bends its arm, you'll see this skin that wrinkles and bunches and slides over the muscles and the tendons. It's the kind of thing that would typically break the cloth simulation, because when it's tight like that, it'll start to penetrate the inner volume and things blow up. We didn’t have technology that really was able to pull off that kind of form-fitting cloth, but we figured out a way to make that happen for the lizard.

Because we were able to build the technology, this time around Spider-Man actually has a cloth simulation done on his costume. So you'll notice right in the beginning of the film, the first shots we see of Spider-Man, he's falling away from camera. And you'll see the wrinkles and it's a much more natural-looking simulation that we're doing. Last time around, we modeled those wrinkles and those wrinkles were driven by the movement of the character; but it wasn’t a real sim, like it is now. But now that it is a sim, we can get those wrinkles to flutter in the turbulence and the wake behind him, and it just gives it a much more grounded feel. It's just one more level of reality that we're able to bring to it.

Emma Stone

Give our readers an idea about the kind of training someone needs if they want your job.

As far as training goes, I guess the message to get out there is it really is about the art and less about the technology. Specifically with regard to animation, the cloth simulations and that area of expertise is definitely a technical discipline.

For the character animation, though, it really is about getting a handle on the artistry, because, yes, we do it on a computer, but, honestly, anybody can learn the ins and outs of the program. Artists coming in off the street who have done stop-motion animation or traditional animation for years are able to come in and we're able to train them up on software.

So it's really the artistic skills that can't be over-emphasized. That means life drawing, understanding anatomy, getting an understanding of physics and how the physical world affects the performance of the character, to make sure that the physics feel real. Having experience in some kind of stop-motion or hand-drawn animation: that’s the kind of stuff that’s kind of honed over a lifetime.

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It sounds like you're saying visual arts training is more important than some sort of technical degree.

Absolutely. For this particular sector of the process, I would say so. You could look at American Idol and The Voice. You’ve got these 16-year-olds coming on and, in some cases, it doesn’t really matter whether they went to music school or had a music degree or credential. They just have a natural tendency for being able to do that kind of thing.

What you get out of school is what matters. It’s important to do any form of animation, stop-motion or hand-drawn animation to develop your artistic chops in that way.

It's less about having the credential that says you're qualified to do this. It's what's in your portfolio and what's on your demo reel that really matters. Those should be words of encouragement, because you don’t necessarily need years and years of technical training in order to do this. You could honestly start with your iPhone and some puppets and see what you can do.

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Paul Giamatti’s Rhino suit is one of the best parts of the new movie. Talk about the development on that character’s animation.

The Rhino character was an interesting development. That was a case where animation really had a hand in development of the look of the character because that character is sort of a mechanized battle suit that Paul Giamatti is riding in. That was all animated and, even going into production, we didn’t know what that suit was going to look like. And it looks like it's built up out of old scrap military parts.

We started by figuring out how big he was going to be, so that on the day of the shoot they could actually put the actor up at that height. But going into it, we really had no idea what this thing was going to look like in the end. He's called The Rhino and he's supposed to look like a rhino, so the early designs built it based on the proportions of a rhino. But, through the process of animation, we discovered it didn’t really work very well when we put him in motion, because a rhino has stubby little legs, and it didn’t look very imposing when he stood up on his hind legs.

When he first confronts Spider-Man, he’s standing on his hind legs and he just needs to look imposing. So we put him in motion, we did some walk cycles and discovered it didn’t look imposing as a design. Through the process of animation, we started redesigning the character and putting those iterations in front of Marc Webb, the director, and getting feedback to zero in on a design.

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That was interesting for us, because normally these things are designed and then we put them into animation. I would say the Goblin was a case where it was designed ahead of time and went right into animation as a final design. But what was interesting about the Rhino is that it was a process of discovery. And we were well into animation. I would say we'd done a couple passes of animation on the entire sequence before we ever settled on exactly how this character was going to look.

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If you look at what we started with, it really was just Paul Giamatti sort of elevated up on this platform and he had a cage built around him, so we would get the proper shadows on his face. But, other than that, it really did come about through a process of discovery. As we got into it, we discovered he needed to shoot rocket launchers and flamethrowers and machine guns and such that get deployed kind of Transformer-style, but a little more clunky. Like I said, it's like it's cobbled together out of military parts. So that was fun. It was something where the design followed the function of what this thing ultimately needed to be.

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