Spider-Man: by Sea and by Air

Jon Watts directed Spider-Man: Homecoming, with the story being picked up from Captain America Civil War, both in terms of plot and also Spidey visual effects.

Many visual effects houses contributed to the film, including Method Studios, ILM, Luma, Trixtor, Iloura and others, but Digital Domain and Sony Pictures Imageworks handled the Ferry battle and the final plane battle respectively.

The Mark 1 Vulture suit

These two battles were also interesting in how the plot sets up the dynamics of the fights. In the first Ferry battle handled by Digital Domain, Peter Parker (Tom Holland) has his full Spider-Man suit and Adrian Toomes (Michael Keaton) has the first version of his winged ‘Vulture’ suit. In the second battle, Parker is reduced to his home made suit and Toomes has had an upgrade to a more powerful high altitude Vulture suit.

In the Ferry fight Digital Domain needed to take their lead very much from Civil War, as the suit was meant to be the same actual suit. The main Spider-Man asset was created, and textured by Method studios and shared, but as every company uses different renderers and shader pipelines, just sharing the prime asset is only part of what is needed to produce a consistent set of effects. Digital Domain built the Vulture Mark I suit, as well as ‘Dronie’ (the Stark Spider-Man drone that is part of the suit) which initially was not in the script.

Lou Pecora, was the VFX Supervisor for Digital Domain. “They built a set in Atlanta which was the ferry itself…which is symmetrical (it travels one way and then can travel back the other way without needing to turn around, so there is no obvious bow or stern to the design), so we had half of the front section built in Atlanta and it was rigged with pistons and hydraulics,” he explains. “Dan Sudick (Special Effects Supervisor) was remarkable, this thing could open fully in 10 seconds and close fully in 12 seconds, and it was pretty incredible to be standing on that thing when it opened.” The special effects team also built giant tanks that could flood 40,000 gallons of water onto the set in 8 seconds. “And that was quite something to behold – of course it took 6 hours to refill the tank but it was something amazing to be standing there and have all that water coming at you,” he joked.

The team then went to Staten Island where the team got a real ferry all to themselves for an entire weekend in a ship yard so they could LIDAR and measure the real thing. This was then recreated digitally and modified to match the Atlanta practical set version (which also had LIDAR scanning), allowing the live action digital version of the set to be seamlessly stitched onto the digital Staten Island replica. While the director shot as much as he could in camera, the wide shots and destruction shots often called for fully CG shots. This approach allowed intercutting from the Atlanta set, first unit photography on the real ferry off Manhattan, and digital effects sequences.

Interestingly Digital Domain used RedShift for all their animation renders, and then V-Ray for the final renders (except for some specialist shots done from Houdini’s Mantra, such as some of the effects). V-Ray produced the photoreal final shots which so accurately modelled the real world lighting that it is almost impossible to tell location photography from CGI sequences. “RedShift was used so we could iterate very quickly and still turn out something that looks reasonable as opposed to an old style playblast,” explains Pecora.

Redshift is a fully GPU-accelerated, biased renderer. The company, Redshift Rendering Technologies Inc was founded in early 2012 in Newport Beach, California, with the goal of developing a production-quality, GPU-accelerated renderer with support for the biased global illumination techniques that until recently had only been available in a CPU render. Pecora explains that the use of RedShift is standardising at Digital Domain, “it was a little tough to get it setup at the beginning but we have used it on a few shows and we using it more and more. This is because it provides a fast way to render with motion blur – because when you show animation for approval it is really difficult to judge it without motion blur, and looks like a cartoon playblast. I think you are lying to yourself if you get an approval on a shot without showing it at good quality with motion blur, you really need to see it, so you can get a sense of how it sits in the background.”

In this film Pecora estimates that 95% of the Spider-Man footage is based on cleaned up MoCap of the actor Tom Holland. “We had Tom do a lot of stuff, he was great. Like the phone call he takes in this sequence from Tony Stark – that wasn’t in the initial shoot, that came from an idea later. And so we did a follow up MoCap session with Tom where he came and acted out the call.” Pecora was impressed when working with Holland, who did everything asked of him and worked hard to provide as much data that he could including swinging on ropes etc on the MoCap stage.

The Web design in this film was also based on what had been done in Civil War, but then Digital Domain found some rather unusual reference that seemed to produce a look that really worked: Polar Bear Fur !

“Our DFX supervisor Jep Hill, suggested polar bear fur or hair which is actually transparent tubes… and what is interesting is the way light refracts through it… It seemed to look the best and the guys at Marvel seemed to take to it right away… of course the problem is then that you have to render the background to refract that through your geometry in order to get it looking right… but I think it was worth it… so the webs are actually translucent tubes that refract the background through them – so when it is closer to his hand – you can see his hand refracting through it,” explains Pecora. “The nice thing about this movie is that if there is a good idea, the creatives will do whatever it takes to go back and include it in the film…it is a really nice  way to do things, so if we suggest something that we think might be good, and they like it, then they say ‘we just have to do it’. Everyone is just trying to serve whatever is best for the movie”.

One of the things that all the vendors on the film needed to address was the real world physics vs. the film logic of say a swinging Spider-Man. In reality the length of the pendulum greatly affects the period of the swinging body, and so large swings just take longer, often times too long for movie screen action. Just as lighting on characters is not so much accurate as it is believable and accepted, the visual effects vendors needed to find spidey swings that both provided believable motions but cut quickly enough for an action sequence. This greatly affects the staging and shot design. “In a few of the shots where he was swinging through the middle of the ship, as it was breaking open, we had to go back and forth to get it right. This actually was also affected by the director wanting the CG camera moves to be something that could have been done in the real world with photography, with a boom, or a crane or drone – we were not allowed to have impossible acceleration or impossible angle turns” explained Pecora. “And I really like that myself… it makes it feel like you are really there”.


In addition to Spider-Man, and Vulture, Digital Domain did Iron Man both at the ferry and where Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr) steps out of the suit to talk to Peter Parker.


Plane Battle

Sony Pictures Imageworks’ visual effects supervisor Theo Bialek headed up the team that took on most of the third act which starts with Peter Parker confronting Adrian Toomesat at the warehouse and quickly moves to the air with the cargo plane battle and beach climax of the film.

Given the plot, Imageworks made the homemade Spider-Man suit, which is all Parker has left after Stark takes back the high tech suit.  This lower tech suit was also shared with Twixtor who did the school battle and bus sequence with Shocker.

Imageworks renders with it’s own version of Arnold which produces highly accurate photorealistic imagery. While there was extensive plate photography at the beach, much of the air battle is 100% CG. “The Vulture warehouse was shot practically… all of the plane battle outside the plane is CG, some shots inside the plane are CG, and then the beach is a hybrid, about 50:50 between CG and plate extension,” explains Bialek.

The Mark 2 Suit used shared assets for part of the outfit. Items such as the boomer jacket etc were the same basic assets that were made for the Mark 1 suit. The key difference for the Mark 2 suit was the vastly more powerful wings. “We did build all of it and shared our jacket and other items with other vendors. The wing suit was based off a maquete… we scanned that and built our model from there”. The complexity of the suit was that the production wanted to avoid cheats that would break the laws of physics. Normally away from view, items can intersect and be cheated in terms of how they fold and work. “They wanted all the pieces to effectively work properly, and not be cheated – that was the hardest part,” recalls Bialek.

While Spider-Man suffered a downgrade in suits, thanks to Tony Stark, Vulture got a major upgrade, placing Spider-Man as the real underdog in the end battle.

Imageworks had developed many web solutions for earlier Spider-Man films. In previous films the web had been shown to have tiny barbs that aided in hooking on to things. In this film Imageworks wanted to connect with the Civil War web and also the other webs seen in the film. Rather than starting from scratch they actually built conceptually from the previous film’s web but dialed back the barbs.

In discussing the web, Bialek commented that the Marvel creative team ” didn’t want to change the look of the web between suits, and they had selects from Civil War that they really liked… For us , in his lower tech suit, Spider-Man didn’t have any special web grenades or unique features, so we just built off our previous web technology and adapted it.”

The web structure (as seen in the trailer).

Web in this film was either one of the new forms that the new suit provided or a standard string style solution for the old suit, but in both cases it was meant to be based on the same underlying web ‘formula’ such that the different web types should all look similar. One key aspect of this was the trumpet style splaying of the web at the point it attaches to anything. The web spreads out into a cone shape such as when Spider-Man is trying to pull up the wing flap of the crashing plane.

As seen in the trailer

The web “tripods out, we used a combination of Maya and Houdini. Our web effects guys had tools that in Maya put out the main web and then in Houdini it would put out extra web, but we weren’t the lead house on having to produce web!” he jokes, referring to the Ferry sequence.

This show with Marvel was incredibly collaborative, for Bialek. The biggest challenge for him was keeping the motion believable and relatable. “It may not be the sexiest answer but keeping the performances balanced was one of the hardest things… when having a guy swinging or another guy flying around with a 32 foot wingspan. Managing weight and making it look solid is not easy.”

This was especially the case in animating the characters interacting on the flying plane. Imageworks calculated that the minimum speed for such a plane to take off was about 250 miles an hour, but that it would fly, at altitude, at closer to 450-500 miles an hour. At these real world speeds, loose cloths such as track/sweat pants would be ripped off with the vast wind shear. The trick then is to introduce enough wind resistance to sell the gag but stop short of trying to be accurate, after all it is a superhero movie. Imageworks again used MoCap but much less than Digital Domain had been able to – due to these additional animation constraints and requirements. “We figured the audience would be along for the ride,” he says, but creatively they did wind back some of the initial ideas about a fight on the outside of the plane. “It just wasn’t realistic that the Vulture could open his wings outside the plane in a fight and not get blown off by the drag,” Bialek explains.

The other big challenge for Bialek was actually the cloaking device on the cargo plane. “Trying to figure out what that would look like was a big challenge for us”. In the Marvel Cinematic Universe there have been several cloaking devices seen before, especially in the Avengers film when the Helicarrier is cloaking, “but that was more like a perfect system that cloaked like a Klingon Bird of Prey, where the whole ship becomes invisible, but that is not what they wanted.” In this film the creatives sort to have technology more grounded and less perfect. The team at Imageworks found an actual real world tank cloaking solution from BAE Systems. The Adaptiv IR Camouflage system uses a series of titles to cloak against infrared targeting system.

A real BAE system: Adaptiv IR Camouflage system

This practical system provided inspiration for what is seen in Homecoming. The tile system in the film mimics this. “That was the basis behind it, – the thinking was ‘what you could (almost) do today with our existing technology – or rather what would Tony Stark do?” Bialek jokes.

The old ‘homemade’ suit that SPI needed to match to.

The beach battle had a reasonable amount of flame bars on the giant set in Atlanta, but Bialek points out, to keep the frame clean for compositing only about 25% of the flames on screen were actually there on set. “It was kind of a hellish experience, it was already hot in Atlanta and then you throw on the flame-bars, and it got even worse!” he jokes.

Even with the practical flame bars the team would often add smaller CG elements to break up the line of the flames from the bars and make them seem less linear and even. The flames that they added are CG but not a perfect match to the live action flames, since that would make everything look like if everything was burning mainline gas. By adding different types of CG fire the team could mix up the notional source of the flame into a more believable mix of aviation fuel and other combustibles. Gas is used since it it is safe and does not produce much smoke. And while it was really helpful to have real flames, the digital ones were able to react to the Vulture’s wings and air flow.

Spider-Man: Homecoming, the first solo Spidey film to take place within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, will be the first film in a trilogy. The news comes straight from star Tom Holland, who accidentally revealed the plans in a Facebook interview with French outlet AlloCiné.  The next immediate sequel for Spider-Man has a release date for July 5th, 2019. In addition to a third film there are other Spider-Man related movies, under development such as Venom and Silver & Black.