Electronic Design

Spider-Man Swings Through A Virtual 3D World

The Amazing Spider-Man (Fig. 1) from Sony Pictures will be swinging in 3D to local theatres this week including IMAX theatres. Andrew Garfield is the latest Peter Parker, aka Spider-Man. Emma Stone plays Gwen Stacy, the love interest. The protagonist, Dr. Curt Connors, is played by Rhys Ifans. Dr. Connors is also The Lizard.

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Figure 1. The Amazing Spider-Man will be swinging in 3D to IMAX theatres.

I have not seen the movie yet but the previews look great and after talking with Jerome Chen (Fig. 2), VFX Supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, I can understand why. I'll leave the content reviews of the movie to others and concentrate on some of the challenges the special effects people had while making the film.

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Figure 2. Jerome Chen, Sony Pictures Imageworks, was the VFX Supervisor for The Amazing Spider-Man.

The movie, like many action films these days, is done in 3D and designed for the large screen. I recently took a look at the new movie, Prometheus (see Prometheus Takes Flight With Cutting-Edge VFX Technology), This included the latest 3D cameras from 3ality Technica (see Video Technology Takes Prometheus Into The Third Dimension). Director Marc Webb had to take into account the 3D filming aspects I discussed in the Prometheus article.

One added challenge with The Amazing Spider-Man was the complexity of the city and the costumes of the actors including The Lizard. This challenge not out of the ordinary for 3D films these days but the scope tended to be more complex for Director Marc Webb, Jerome Chen and their crews. The action may be moving at an eye blurring pace much of the time but the details about the environment are rendered in more detail than they have in the past. The street that Spider-Man swings down matches the floorplan for the city (Fig. 3). There is a level of consistency that past special effects artists only dreamed of. It was also a daunting task because the director and special effects artists could not use the common 2D cheats when filming for 3D.

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Figure 3. Imageworks developed a very detailed and accurate model of the city that Spider-Man inhabits.

Chen and company had to develop a lot of virtual 3D assets including a component-style building library. They could assemble buildings using a range of blocks including architectures that pre-Wold War 2, post-war, plus new ultra modern buildings. This allowed creation of a city in a "Lego-like" fashion that had a mix of buildings that were unique, not just walls of glass or brick. Many of the swinging shots of Spider-Man were done over more than mile long stretch. That is a lot of buildings and detail. Futuristic films on other virtualized environments would actually be easier to create because viewers would not have a preconceived notion of the environment. On the other hand, Spider-Man is swinging down what is to appear to be a conventional modern city.

Other movies have used the RenderMan render but Chen and Sony have moved to Solid Angle's Arnold renderer. It supports features like global illumination and provides a very accurate rendering. The challenge was all the surface shaders used with RenderMan would have to be rewritten. It is a time consuming process.

The movie is a mix of computer generated imagery (CGI) and live action switching from one to the other many times a minute and often being a mix of both. This was the case for the scene on the roof of the OSCorp tower. This was done on a large stage with a major mix of live and CGI. Some of the street scenes utilized giant green screens at the end of the streets so the CGI could be used generate that part of the image. Likewise, there is a fight scene in the high school where Spider-Man is thrown through a concrete wall. Garfield is thrown by a stuntman at the start of this scene but the rest is handled by a CGI double. Try to figure out where the transition is.

The battle in high school was originally filmed live with the idea of augmenting it with CGI. Changes were made after that so they built CG replica of high school and did the whole scence in CG. This was handy because the area was not available for a reshoot.

The challenge is the balance between the VFX group and the director. The director wants to wait as long as possible to hand off a scene in case changes need to be made. The VFX group wants a scene as soon as possible so they can spend more time working on it. Design and rendering take time and more can be done with more time. Some frames took 20 to 40 hours to render.

The Lizard was a complex character to generate (Fig. 4). It was one of the most difficult ones that Imageworks has done to date. He was covered with scales that were susceptible to subtle movements. The folds in the skin were modeled after the Komodo Dragon.

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Figure 4. Is it live or computer generated?.

The team tackled the Lizard with the same enthusiasm as it did the city. In the latter case, lighting was key. For example, the interior lighting of a building affects what it will look like from the outside. This includes how the room would look, the type of floor, and so on.

Motion capture was really not part of the CGI mix. For the Lizard, they took trips to the zoo, pet shops and other spots to get more insight into real lizards. This included studying HD video of lizards. The resolution of the Lizard's face was very high. It allowed the VFX crew to even replicate Ifans' facial ticks and nuances.

The tail was a challenge because it was going to be more than a simple prop. It was incorporated as part of the Lizard's body language. Anyone with a pet like a dog or cat know how much the tail can impart to viewers.

The Spider-Man costume was also given the treatment but there were different details to present. The displacement of web lines in suit needed to be adjusted depending upon the kind of shot.

The next series of images (Fig. 5) highlights the complexity of the scene creation and rendering that were common for the film.

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Figure 5a. It starts with a detailed background of the city.

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Figure 5b. It adds in Spider-Man for placement.

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Figure 5c. Next there is detailed rendering of Spider-Man.

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Figure 5d. The final scene shows Spider-Man's view of his reflection.

The background is the city. Spider-Man is then added to the mix. Keep in mind that this image is actually from his point of view looking in a window to see his own reflection. The final rendering incorporates all the background details including the reflection of the sun. This is very impressive and it is just one frame within the movie.

I have heard that The Amazing Spider-Man is a great movie from an acting and content standpoint. I do know that the special effects for The Amazing Spider-Man are fantastic.

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