By J David Osborne
Contributing Writer, [GAS]
The image of the effects artist as a bespectacled dude with a paintbrush, standing in front of a life-size and life-like monster waiting to be brought to life by the flourishes of a group of talented puppeteers, is (mostly) a thing of the past. In its place we have the idea of a sterile room, probably white, full of folks in t-shirts and jeans, each of them sitting in front of a computer, each of them entering code, adjusting algorithms, and subtly moving the imagery around on screen, each of them responsible for just a little bit of the finished product.
The former image being more romantic, of course.
However, as the technology creeps ever closer to being able to mimic reality, the tools at these creators’ disposal are getting just as sharp as the aforementioned paintbrush. The talent and the creativity are there, in front of that computer screen. And finally the tech is catching up.
I mean, just look at “The Amazing Spider-Man”. This thing looks, well…I won’t say it. It looks really great. And while there have been films that have wowed with some cutting edge technology, as of late, there isn’t a character more tailored to the 3D format than an agile young superhero capable of swinging through and scaling the walls of New York City skyscrapers.
The film was shot in native stereo, a technique in which two cameras simultaneously roll, which, according to Steve Schklair, the lead 3D producer of the film and CEO of 3ality Technica, creates “an interocular offset that is close to that of the human eye.” Shooting native allows the effects team to duck the conversion process, creating a more naturalistic look for the film, and shooting digital (using the Red Epic) allows a lot more leeway on the effects end. “The challenge was that we had to be ready to ingest these stereo images, to make sure they worked.
Indeed, with great power comes great headaches. Some of the environments are entirely digital. This is great on the one hand, because it allows the filmmakers to realize the climactic (and obviously destructive) battle between Spidey and the Lizard on the rooftops of New York City. It also makes the painstaking effects process all the more involved: “The exact amount of special effects shots in the film is somewhat hard to quantify,” says Schklair. “Because the film is full of these entirely digital environments. Not to mention all the scenes that maybe needed a little steam coming from a vent somewhere. Or all of the web shots.”
All of this, without taking into account the nine-foot mutant Lizard. “We had to figure out, during production, ‘how is this going to work?’ How does this thing move? How do we make it life-like?” They studied real reptiles, sure, but there really wasn’t a reference readily available for a lizard-human hybrid. Rhys Ifans, the actor who plays the creature, did his best to act out the character’s motions in front of the stereo cameras. “This allowed for a great naturalistic look, but we weren’t able to use motion capture. We found that when we entered in this data, the actor and the character didn’t match up one to one. So that’s where the artists came in. I think they did a great job of creating a human character that moves like a lizard.”
While the team had great stunt reference for the action scenes, there were superhuman elements that had to be created from whole cloth, that essentially came from the minds of the effects crew. “It’s a lot of fun to try and take the director’s vision,” Schklair says, “and see where these guys go with it. There’s a lot of computer number crunching, sure, but then there’s questions like, ‘where do we put the lights?’” Schklair’s enthusiasm is infectious, and it’s easy to see how this sentiment might have spread throughout his entire creative team. The puppeteers of yesteryear and the digital effects artists are coming from the same space. The tools have nearly caught up. And now we are able to see Spider-Man the way it’s supposed to be seen: with us swinging with the hero through the skyscrapers of New York City, ducking the razor sharp claws of an angry mutant, totally immersed.