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VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen on The Amazing Spider-Man

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CreativeCOW presents VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen on The Amazing Spider-Man -- Film History & Appreciation Feature

Jerome ChenJerome Chen
Sony Imageworks
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The Amazing Spider-Man, directed by Marc Webb, walks a fine web between homage to the Spider-Men who have gone before and a fresh look at the agile super hero and his mythology. The movie is also the first native stereo 3D feature for Sony Pictures Imageworks, which developed a new stereo pipeline for the film.

The Amazing Spider-Man has 1,639 of visual effects, of which SPI did 671. Sony Imageworks Senior VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen, who acted as the feature's overall Visual Effects Supervisor, brought on other facilities to complete the VFX work: Pixomondo, Pixel Playground, Gener8, Nerve, Sony Colorworks, Blur Studios, Arc, iSolve, Legend3D, Method Studios, Flash Film Works, Handmade Digital and Reliance MediaWorks. Between all the VFX and conversion companies, approximately 1,000 people worked on the movie, says Chen.

Jerome Chen is an Academy Award-nominated senior visual effects supervisor at Sony Pictures Imageworks, and served in this role on Beowulf and the Polar Express as well as the two Stuart Little films. Chen joined SPI in its founding year, 1992, and worked his way through the production ranks starting as a digital artist. Other film credits include Godzilla, Contact, James and the Giant Peach, The Ghost and the Darkness and In the Line of Fire.

Jerome Chen speaks to Creative COW about choreography and creation of the VFX on The Amazing Spider-Man.


Jerome Chen on the set of Columbia Pictures' 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. © 2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc.  All Rights Reserved.
Jerome Chen on the set of Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man," starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood.
What's unique about this Spider-Man is that it's shot in native stereo and is designed to be a stereo experience. These tentpoles tend to release in 3D anyway, but what most people don't realize is that most of them are 2D-to-3D conversions. To me, there's a visual difference; the detail and depth is more genuine in something that's shot natively. Movies that are designed from the beginning of the process to be stereo -- from camera choreography to the VFX -- tend to very satisfying stereo experiences. Avatar is a great example of that idea. Shooting a movie natively presents a whole host of issues. When I start a film, I have to evaluate the creative and the technical challenges. In the case of The Amazing Spider-Man, I knew it would be creatively exciting but technically hard. And it turned out to be a lot harder than I imagined. It required a new workflow and new technology, and fortunately I had a partner in Rob Engle, the studios' stereo supervisor and a pioneer in modern stereo production, who supervised both the on-set stereo photography and stereo post production.

A small portion of the movie -- probably 200 shots -- was converted to 3D from 2D, for a variety of reasons. There were certain cases where the stereo rig couldn't fit inside a car, or where we wanted something hand-held. Any Steadicam shot had to be converted. These are due to the size and weight of the stereo cameras (which includes the 3ality Technica rig and the mirror).

Our director Marc Webb's last film before this was (500) Days of Summer but he also had done over 70 music videos, so he came with an incredible visual sense and instincts for timing and camera choreography. Marc was careful to pay a lot of respect to the other three Spider-Man movies but he knew he had to do something different. He wanted to do something naturalistic and organic. Not gritty, but something less stylized than the other ones. That was a great place to start from.

Marc's early mandate was that, as much as possible, he didn't want anybody who worked on the previous Spider-Man movies to work on this one. He loved the other Spider-Man movies and knew it was going to be hard to keep a fresh vision and perspective to the movie and he needed as clean a slate as possible. He didn't want it to just pay homage. But in certain instances he judiciously picked talent who worked on the other movies. J. Michael Riva, the production designer, held the same title on Spider-Man 3. John Frazier, the physical effects god who was the movie's special effects supervisor, was on all three previous Spider-Man movies. I hadn't worked on the other Spider-Man movies, but behind the scenes, I was using all the knowledge we had at Imageworks.

In addition to Rob [Engle] and me, our team consisted of Digital Effects Supervisor David Smith, Animation Supervisor Randall Cook, Additional Animation Supervisor David Schaub and Senior Visual Effects Producer John Clinton, all of who brought a wealth of experience and talent to the project.



VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks. Peter Parker with spiders in the laboratory.


This version of the The Amazing Spider-Man is a variation of the origin story, and ties in Peter Parker's father as a central figure to the legacy behind the technology that allowed Peter to become Spider-Man. The villain is Dr. Connors -- the icon Lizard. Connors works for Oscorp Industries and is a scientist in charge of a biotech division who is developing a means to save the life of a terminally ill Norman Osborne. Connors, an amputee who lost his right arm, has an ulterior motive to use the same technology to grow back his missing arm. He's betting on a concept called cross-species genetics. Connors meets Peter and mentors him after Peter discovers a hidden formula in his father's papers. Connors uses it create a serum and injects himself, but the formula (of course) is flawed, and Connors transforms into an insane 9-foot tall powerful lizard. This is a formidable foe to Spider-Man.



Rhys Ifans as Dr. Connors uses Oscorp Industries' technology to attempt to grow back his amputated arm. Unfortunately, the serum is defective, and transforms Connors into a formidable foe. Photo by Jaimie Trueblood.



VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks for Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man."


This story gives us some fantastic opportunities in terms of the visual effects work. A major topic of early discussions between Marc and I focused on developing a new style of movement for Spidey. We wanted it to be different from other Spider-Men, but also faithful to the comic books. He had to have his own identity.

Certainly another major challenge was to create the Lizard, a character that is central to the whole story. The Lizard has to be able to emote, as well as have a human side. I saw that there would be lots of opportunities to explore areas I was comfortable with but also push the envelope. I like to push it to the point that if we fail, there's a huge price. Then it makes you think about what are the things that will make it right.


Both the CG humanoid Lizard and the CG version of Spider-Man have to be believable. In terms of natural and organic aspects, as Spider-Man fights the Lizard and progresses through the movie, even his costume becomes dirtier, more ripped up and tattered; he's no glossy super hero. I thought that would be interesting to explore in terms of digital, and to make sure it integrates well with whatever practical or stunt work would be done.


VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks for Columbia Pictures' 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' starring Andrew Garfiled and Emma Stone.
This is no glossy super hero. His costume becomes dirtier and more tattered as the movie progresses.


A major endeavor involved the nighttime world of Manhattan. Spider-Man really comes alive at night and swings through these canyons created from the skyscrapers. Remember, we've got to do this in stereo, which I thought was a great access point to see what it would feel like to be Spider-Man, swinging fast and high above the street. Stereo gives us change to feel the height and the speed.

In terms of acquiring photographed backplates where we are moving through a New York City street, historically we use Spydercam (a motion-controlled camera slung on cables stretched between two points). These camera paths are mostly linear, so when we want more dynamic moves the shots become completely CG. At the end of the day, the only way to capture a guy who's that agile is to allow the camera to break physics a little bit. At the same time, we wanted to make sure that the full CG sequences fit into the tone of the rest of the movie.


VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks for Columbia Pictures' 'The Amazing Spider-Man,' starring Andrew Garfiled and Emma Stone.
At the end of the day, the only way to capture a guy who's that agile is to allow the camera to break physics a little bit.


Another departure from the other Spider-Man movies is that they were shot in film, and this used the RED Epic cameras. The cinematographer John Schwartzman, ASC was bold and adventurous enough to use early versions of these digital cameras, and these cameras captured wonderful imagery. The nighttime footage in particular has a really wide dynamic range and reproduces color with a unique look.

With regard to handling the 3D, what's interesting is that Imageworks already has quite a history in stereo work. We started with The Polar Express, all the other animated features, and the work we did on Alice in Wonderland also got a lot of attention. None of those shows, however, were shot in native stereo, which means the front end of our pipeline didn't require the ability to ingest that amount of data or reconcile two sets of images. The backend pipeline from animation, compositing and rendering was very robust in stereo, but we needed to create a pipeline for dealing with stereo photography on the front end.

We did a lot of research and even talked to our friends at various facilities around town. What we found out is that everyone does it a different way and there were pros and cons to every way of doing it. There are so many parameters that affect the technical qualities of the photography. We shot in parallel, which meant we didn't pre-converge the images. That gave us the ability in post production to custom converge the footage shot by shot.

We worked with the color scientists at RED to figure out the best pixel and color resolution we should be working in. We knew the digital intermediate would be completed at Colorworks, so we conferred with them and arrived at a working format of 16-bit LOG DPX. Fifteen different companies ended up working on the movie, so we also had to think about how the decision we made in the beginning would impact others.


Before and After frame sequence created by Imageworks for Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man," starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
Courtesy of CTMG./ImageMagick
VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks.


When it came to picking other VFX facilities, we placed an emphasis on high quality, experience in native 3D and stereo conversion, and -- of course -- availability and price. In addition to Imageworks, Pixomondo did a large portion of the work, about 250 shots. Blur Studios did the title sequence and a sequence in the movie where the main characters interface with a holographic computer interface. There were many hundreds of greenscreen composites, wire removals, split screens, monitor burn-ins and so on that were divided among Pixel Playground, Nerve Studios, Method Studios and others.

In divvying up the work between Imageworks and Pixomondo, Imageworks kept anything to do with the CG Lizard, CG Spider-Man and full digital environments. Pixomondo's main sequence involved a CG Williamsburg Bridge, where they had to devise a workflow to share digital assets -- and not just rendered elements, but actual 3D data files. In a shot that was purely CG with an animated camera, Pixomondo would give a low or medium-res version of the bridge to us at the right scale, Imageworks would put the characters in it and put it in a Maya file and give it back to Pixomondo, which would break it apart to render it in their package, Mental Ray.

On a technical level, you want to have companies that have the ability to trade files back and forth. It's an extra level of cooperation that has to be taken into account. A simple example is sharing skies between sequences. We might want to put art-directed clouds in the sky, so we'd have to pass images of cloud backgrounds or cityscapes back and forth with the companies doing wire removal. In the distance, you had to make sure you were using the right cityscape. It wasn't just 3D assets passing around; there were plenty of 2D assets and reference images going back and forth.


On a technical level, you want to have companies that have the ability to trade files back and forth. A simple example is sharing skies between sequences.



We were also using different file formats, depending on the source imagery. If you did a matte painting, what was important was the color space you're viewing it at and that's tricky because everyone has different viewing environments. We passed around a LUT that works with our main viewing room and calibrates to the viewing room where we'd do the DI at Colorworks; that was my standard. We gave LUT data to other companies and everyone had to feed into this.

In addition to 3D, the other challenge that occupied a lot of our conversation were all the aspects involved in creating the look of the Lizard and perfecting his animation as well as Spider-Man's animation. The movement of Spider-Man is an interesting hybrid of taking cues from practical stunt work and looking at the physics of how a human may actually move going from one building to another, and expanding on that while making sure that it doesn't take you out of the movie. We had to make it feel that you couldn't tell the difference between the two in terms of story and character.


The musculature of the Lizard was a complicated process.

Courtesy of CTMG./ImageMagick
He had a virtual under-layer of muscle with dynamically simulated reptile skin over it.


The musculature of the Lizard was a complicated process. He had a virtual under-layer of muscle with dynamically simulated reptile skin over it. We studied many different kinds of lizards and were drawn to ones with loose folds on the neck and joint areas, but very tight skin elsewhere. We wanted to mimic that in our digital version. We took the most interesting parts from a variety of lizards. Even though the movie's lizard is a freshly mutated being, we still wanted its scales to look worn and imperfect, chipped, with dirt caught between them. We became so obsessed with scales, that we had to dial back so you could read his face, and giving him coloration around his eyes and mouth so you could read his expressions.


Before and After frame sequence created by Imageworks for Columbia Pictures' "The Amazing Spider-Man," starring Andrew Garfield and Emma Stone.
Courtesy of CTMG./ImageMagick
Courtesy of CTMG./ImageMagick.


With regard to the software tools we used, we had been predominately a Renderman facility, which is a very common renderer used in VFX work. But we switched over to Arnold Global Illumination renderer, a production-quality ray tracing renderer written by Solid Angle and co-developed with Sony Pictures Imageworks. We love the quality of the light in the image and, as a full global illumination renderer, it takes into account how colors bleed into each other and the light bounces around.

Over the years, we've retooled our pipeline to work in Arnold. Technology was also written to deal with such large data sets. Optimization tools and workflow was required to deal with the amount of data to establish a workable level of interactivity for our digital artists. We used proxies and cached the important stuff that didn't need to be recalculated. A degree of training is required to teach artists to light complicated scenes. Often we'd have very experienced artists who set up scenes, master lighters, who then passed them on to be finished by junior artists.

I'm most proud of the fact that we really gave audiences a different perspective on what it's like to be Spider-Man, in terms of the visceral experience of swinging through canyons, moving fast and high up among the skyscrapers. There's a key sequence at the end of the third act, where Spider-Man swings down Sixth Ave. to get to the villain.



Spidey's most triumphant moment in the movie, where the nearest skyscraper is too far for him to web, and then these construction cranes swing outwards to provide him a pathway to web his way to the Oscorp Tower where the villain awaits. VFX Final Frames produced by ImageWorks.


Spidey is wounded and reaches a point where the nearest skyscraper is too far for him to web, and then these construction cranes swing outwards to provide him a pathway to web his way to the Oscorp Tower where the villain awaits. It's Spidey's most triumphant moment in the movie, and the ballet-like grace of his swinging is really visceral when seen in stereo. We're happy to be able to use all our available tools to create this sense of depth and movement to help convey the feeling of what it's like to be Spider-Man.






All images courtesy and ©2012 Columbia Pictures Industries, Inc. All Rights Reserved.




Comments

Re: VFX Supervisor Jerome Chen on The Amazing Spider-Man
by Peter Constan-Tatos
Cant wait to see it. One question...were any scaled sets used in the production?


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