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Web-Slinging in NYC: VFX In “The Amazing Spiderman”

Jerome Chen has been winning awards for his visual effects work before there were awards dedicated to visual effects.  One of his earlier awards, presented by the International Monitor Awards, was for “Electronic Effects” on the film “Contact.”  While the society that presented those awards has since disbanded, visual effects have continued to morph and grow, and Chen’s abilities have grown along with them.  Beginning his VFX career as a computer graphics animator, Chen has also worked as lead animator, senior technical designer, and visual effects supervisor, which is his credit on the recent member of the Spiderman franchise, “The Amazing Spiderman.”

Because “The Amazing Spiderman” is a reboot of the Spiderman story, the first order of business was defining the look of Spiderman and how visual effects would bring this newly defined character to life.  Director Marc Webb wanted the basis of the film’s visual style to revolve around the love story between Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone.)  Chen worked alongside Webb in their “mission” to transform Peter Parker into his super-hero alter-ego.

“In our early concepts we wanted this Spiderman to have more of a natural and organic vibe to it,” said Chen.  “This was also going to be photographed in native stereo, so combining these two things alone gave this version a new look.”

Chen and his team worked on creating Spiderman’s movements, combining the classic style of web-slinging exhibited in the comic books with natural movements of the body, creating unique and stylized action that was both an homage to the super hero and believable to the audience.  Paying extreme attention to positive and negative space through the use of elements such as sunlight and shadow as they fell on the body, along with the perspective of distance to objects during flight were important ingredients through the action sequences to  accentuate the organic qualities Chen and Webb were aiming to achieve.  Additionally, Chen and his team used video references to determine how Spiderman’s webbing would connect to buildings, and how a body would elevate from the ground to a building’s surface gracefully from a distance.  This data was then incorporated into motion capture technology.

“He has to appear that he is defying gravity; he has to appear like he can just land on the surface with fluidity,” said Chen.  “Andrew was handling the movements so (Spiderman) could feel realistic and organic.  Motion capture has created many more advances in the way we use optic data to allow people to move in an unnatural existence.”

Having so masterfully incorporated Los Angeles as a character in his last feature, “(500) Days of Summer,” Webb was very attentive to the look, feel and presence New York City would have in this film.  To prepare for representation of the cityscape during the action sequences, the visual effects department studied every angle of the skyscrapers of New York, from the ground, the sky, and the view of the city from various heights, such as the 20th floor.  They also carefully examined the color levels and grainy qualities of light coming through windows of the city’s buildings, particularly at nighttime, as shot by the production’s camera,  the Red Epic.  With this data a 3D model of the city was built with a proprietary software.  The art department then applied various light levels and color palettes throughout the windows to achieve a realistic finish.

In addition to the complexity of Spiderman’s movements and the appearance of New York City, Chen and his team also had to create a realistic metamorphosis of the villain Dr. Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) into his alter ego The Lizard.  The first course of action was defining the look of The Lizard’s appearance.  The team studied a variety of lizard species to define how the scales should be patterned on the body.  Some scales had to be retractable and smaller while others, such as on the back, were larger and hard like armor.  Once the quality, dimensions and color of the scales were defined, the rigging and musculature of The Lizard was constructed.

“We had to create the illusion of the look of the skin, the way light reflects on it, the weight of it, how the muscles move together; there are so many different components,” said Chen.  “The most important thing was that The Lizard was a transformed version of a human, so we had to keep the proportions of his face closely human.”

While the advancements in visual effects that have occurred over the years allow a production such as “The Amazing Spiderman” to have such a realistic and organic quality, Chen believes without the vision and talent of the craftspeople who manipulate the technology, even the most advanced computer system won’t provide the best results.

“A lot of computers are very powerful, and a vision can become very sophisticated in its conceivability,” said Chen.  “All I can say is, the artistic effort has always been there.  It’s not the computers, it’s up to the artists to effectively create the images.”