As a series of trailers and TV spots have made pretty clear, besides the human drama, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 is providing enough spectacle in terms of visual effects to up the ante on what is possible within a comic book movie.
No secret is the fact that as the film unfolds, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man goes up against Jamie Foxx’s Electro, Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin and (briefly) Paul Giamatti’s Rhino.
Each of these characters, of course, have been brought to life through a combination of live-action performances and digital enhancements provided by Sony Pictures’ Imageworks. And one of the people bringing his particular skills to the project is Animation Supervisor David Schaub.
Since joining Imageworks in 1995, Schaub has worked as an animation supervisor on Surfs Up, Stuart Little 2, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe, Hollow Man, I Am Legend, Evolution, Castaway, Patch Adams and The Amazing Spider-Man.
In the first of this exclusive two-part interview, he discusses the challenges of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, the intermixing of practical effects with CG and some of the elements that went into bringing Foxx’s Electro to life.
GEEK EXCHANGE: You’ve worked on both Spider-Man films. I sat down with Marc Webb on the first one and he emphasized to me how important it was that things should be done practically on the set to keep everything grounded. This movie, on the other hand, feels like it was put on steroids in terms of the visual effects. You watch the trailer and they’re everywhere.
DAVID SCHAUB: I think he sort of got to the point where he realized we could do a lot of this stuff. On the first round he didn’t think he could get results that looked convincing, which is why he did do things practically. But in the end, after all the work they did to get that stuff done on set with stunt guys and the rest, by the time we were done we’d replaced everything with CG anyway. There was one shot where he swung under the bridge on the last one, and I think there was just one other where the practical stuff made it into the film. All the rest of it was CG. He kind of came to the conclusion that we could pull it off, so we went to town with it. But because he was so sensitive to the idea that things look grounded and believable, he was hellbent on making the CG convincing. That was our directive. If we’re going to do this with digital characters, we pay a lot of attention to getting things grounded in a physical way. That’s where the challenge was, making sure we were following the laws of physics and all the rest. If Spider-Man’s doing superhuman things, we make sure that all of the supporting physics are there to still give it a grounded feel.
Watching the trailer, I had mixed feelings. On the one hand my feeling was that there are just too many villains, yet at the same time there was an excitement in watching how seamlessly things transitioned from actors to CG characters.
And I think you’d be hard-pressed to determine which is which. There are some shots that you’d swear are practical, but are actually CG. Simple things like Andrew Garfield doing a close-up performance as Spider-Man, where it was actually added after the fact. The footage would get into editing, Marc would decide he wants to add another shot to kind of flesh the story out a little bit more, didn’t have it as a practical element and, for even a lot of the close-ups, there would be a CG character and the audience would never know one way or the other. Any time he’s doing anything physical – doing his Spider-Man thing – we just make sure that all of that stuff is as seamless as possible.
Even if you compare it to the Raimi movies, which represented the technology of the time (and that time wasn’t so long ago), they accomplished a lot, but it was always so obvious when they switched to CG.
It was the physics. That’s what always drove me crazy; I sort of have an aversion to movie physics that don’t work. Superhero movies are tough ones when they’re doing what they do, but that doesn’t mean that when he’s swinging on a web and releases, suddenly gravity goes out the window. Or gravity suddenly whips him to the ground faster than what gravity would normally accelerate the character. But that’s just the kind of stuff you see time and again – characters in a battle sequence and debris is falling slower than they are, because the laws state that objects fall with a certain acceleration regardless of whether it’s debris or a character. You put the two of those together, somehow there’s a clash there. Because of Marc’s insistence on getting the physics right, I was very happy that that was his vision. So often, even in our visual effects world, we’ll deliver shots and in the editing process things just get sped up after the fact. After we’ve approved animation and delivered, it’s no longer in our control. In these cases, we were very much on the same page.
Can you give me an idea of how challenging it was to have to create such disparate characters in this film?
The things we talked about regarding Spider-Man kind of go across the board for all the characters, except maybe Electro. He’s kind of free-floating. He was on wires on set, which kind of gave us a starting point in terms of knowing what the performance needed to be. Of course we’d get those shots in, we’d look at them, Marc would look at them and it’s obvious he’s on wires; he’s suspended. He’s hanging. It has that feel to it. But that was a great starting point to see what the performance is and use it as our guideline. All of the close-ups, obviously, were Jamie Foxx with an enormous amount of embellishment that went on top of it, tracking his skin precisely so that the veins track and slide over the interior structure of the head and all of that. That in itself was an animation challenge and needed a team of animators doing that exclusively. The level of precision we needed, it had to measure precisely to the pores of his skin. It really was a process of going through and painstakingly tracking the soft tissue of the face. Like I said, the veins on the surface are there, but the sub-surface stuff needs to have its own kind of volume so that you feel a depth there. As he manipulates his face, obviously all of that stuff slides and needs to move naturalistically or else you’re going to see sliding veins on his face.
If he has the “action” of shooting electricity from his hands, does he have a recoil from it, so to speak?
Certainly physics would say that, but I think the way it’s being played is that the energy of the bolt is an energy in itself. It’s not like shooting a gun where the recoil would just knock him back; it’s more like the electricity has a power in itself and he’s just putting it out there and it distributes its explosive nature just by the fact that it actually lights up the target. But I know exactly what you mean, it wasn’t played as a recoil. All of that stuff he does as a floating Electro is pretty much a re-animation process, as is finding ways to make sure it feels like he is manipulating himself in the air rather than being on wires. We also had to try to find ways to transition in and out the moment when he flows through the bolt of electricity and then during that transition, while he’s in the process of traveling through the bolt, you’ll see moments where he kind of materializes momentarily, which was our attempt to and give the bolt a little bit of character. A lot of that was back and forth between departments; the timing of the bolts, the shape and the branching of the bolts, was an animation process. That would go into effects and we’d see the results. There’s a lot of back and forth – they’d work on it, we’d work on it and so on. That was the situation rather than animation doing its thing and throwing it over the fence. I think that was the case with a lot of this stuff.
This weekend, David Schaub will provide details on the animating of the Goblin and Rhino in Amazing Spider-Man 2 as this exclusive interview continues.
Images: Sony Pictures