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July 11, 2012

‘Amazing Spider-Man’: The secrets of off-the-wall visual effects

Posted in: Movies

 Andrew Garfield stars as Spider-Man in "The Amazing Spider-Man." (Columbia Pictures)

Andrew Garfield stars as Spider-Man in “The Amazing Spider-Man.” (Columbia Pictures)

What’s the most effective way to depict a teenage superhero swinging through the urban canyons of New York City, trudging through subterranean tunnels and battling a 9-foot humanoid reptile? Such were the questions faced by “The Amazing Spider-Man” director Marc Webb and the visual effects artists at Sony Imageworks. For many key scenes, the answer was to create and animate fully digital environments and actors, which allowed for a great deal of creative freedom but presented their own artistic and practical challenges.

We caught up with digital effects supervisor Dave Smith to talk about his team’s vision for Spidey’s return to the big screen. The exclusive video below (narrated by David Schaub, supervisor of additional animation) demonstrates how digital effects were used to bring some of Spider-Man’s classic comic-book poses to life and to re-create New York streetscapes in painstaking detail.

HC: How do you decide which scenes to create digitally?

DS: When we have to go mostly digital is [for] something that’s very impractical to shoot, either on location or in an environment that would be nearly impossible to do. [Using computer-generated imagery,] it’s more convenient because you don’t have to close down New York City or anything like that. But also we get to design the shots with the animation in mind and move the cameras according to the animation, so it gives a lot of flexibility to create dynamic shots.

HC: What are some of the challenges involved in using digital environments?

DS: Well for one, making them look real. We don’t want to go CG just for the sake of CG. I think you have to have some anomalies in there. That’s the big challenge: If it’s too clean and too smooth and too perfect, it gives it away right away. And so the thing we have to incorporate is imperfection, and that goes all the way from the movement of the camera to the action.

HC: How difficult is it to replicate a place as concrete and familiar as New York?

DS: The thing about New York City is that there’s just a tremendous amount of detail. We’ve been able to build up libraries of buildings and New York City-type streetscapes and objects that define these urban environments over the years. And so we’re able to capture that and have it look, hopefully, as similar as it does in the real photography of New York City.

HC: Would it have been possible to create scenes as complex five or 10 years ago?

DS: I think the combination of technology that we have now, the ability for us to actually put that amount of geometry into a scene and have our computers be able to load it in, and then actually render, that was an impossibility only a few short years ago. And also by building it up over the years, we’re able to do it in a production timeline. We didn’t have to build everything from scratch. So you could even say this is 10 years in the making.

HC: The previous “Spider-Man” films were hugely popular and fairly recent. How did the filmmakers work to make this movie unique?

DS: The director came on with a fresh approach. He didn’t want to talk about how it was done in the past; he wanted to talk about his approach. I think the end result and what Marc Webb was able to infuse into this movie is a lot more dimensionality. I use that word and everybody thinks of the stereo 3-D, but I think there’s a lot more character dimensionality and in the story, there’s a lot more ups and downs. It’s funny and emotional and sad and happy, and [there’s] action, and it’s all kind of woven together.

— Oliver Gettell


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