[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”]
When it came to creating The Elementals, the massive, multiverse monsters for “Spider-Man: Far From Home,” manifestations of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, Marvel looked no further than some familiar Spidey foes: Sand-Man, Hydro-Man, Molten-Man, and Cyclone.
“I’m not sure which came first in the development process, the idea of using the comic book villains…or elemental creatures that would be subsequently assigned to those villains,” said Janek Sirrs, the production visual effects supervisor. “Either way we trod a fine line with the connection between the two, and only explicitly called out Hydro-Man’s comic book character’s name, leaving the rest more ambiguous.”
Cinematic translation to the big screen, though, was definitely a major design issue. “For example, Molten-Man was at one point depicted as a gold man sporting a buzz cut and a pair of tighty-whities (although we did retain a hint of that buzz cut for nostalgic reasons),” added Sirrs.
The technical approach to all the Elementals, however, was pretty similar: “Underneath all those rocks, clouds, fire, water, etc. there’s essentially an animating figure of some sort, often driven by a motion capture performance,” Sirrs said. “And it’s that performance that drives all the complex sims needed to cast off water spray, or drip molten lava in a believable manner. Given the huge scale of the creatures, those mocap performances had to be slowed down appropriately to get the correct sense of mass.”
“There’s actually a bit of leap of faith when it comes to designing such FX-heavy creatures,” Sirrs added, “as they don’t really come to life until you see them moving with the FX stuff in action. The underlying forms/figures really aren’t that exciting in and of themselves.”
The VFX work was divided between several studios: Scanline did Earth and Water, Luma focused on Fire, and Sony Pictures Imageworks made the final Hybrid creation. The Earth Elemental appeared first in an opening battle in Mexico (shot in Spain using the Spanish Civil War memorial town of Belchite), which introduces otherworldly superhero Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal). The sequence also features Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders).
“As originally scripted, the opening scene that introduces Mysterio didn’t actually include the Earth Elemental at all,” said Sirrs. “A subsequent version swung in completely the opposite direction, turning it into a full-blown battle sequence with the creature, before finally settling on seeing just enough of it to establish the threat, and the need for a superhero such as Mysterio to take charge.”
Of course, Hydro-Man in Venice was a given. They opted to shoot the entire first half of the scene on the Leavesden backlot water tank, and the second half in Santa Maria Formosa square in Venice, to avoid the production drowning beneath a sea of tourists. “Hydro-Man went through an exhaustive design process, varying all the way from the churning white water/spray finished look to something far more clear/glass-like,” Sirrs said.
Reference material included pretty much every natural and man-made water phenomena imaginable. “But the most informative for me was footage of the launch pad water deluge system at the NASA Kennedy Space Center,” added Sirrs. “It took everybody seeing crude renderings of these options in motion to settle on a white water/spray version and keep the look dev moving forward in that general direction. Once we had that basic look squared away, we could start to explore things like how he might transition back and forth between a recognizable human form and something more wave-like, or how his punches might become more like blasts from the world’s biggest fire hydrant.”
Sony Pictures Imageworks
The design of Molten-Man (for a battle shot on location in the town square of Liberec in the Czech Republic and on a partial set build at Leavesden Studios in the UK) was tricky in that fiery VFX creatures are a pretty common character these days, even appearing in previous Marvel movies. “The knack was finding the right balance of a creature that had enough heat/flames/radiance to convey something capable of melting nearby objects, but also be composed of molten material that would flow, drip, etc. as it moved around,” said Sirrs.
Not surprisingly, the Hybrid Elemental proved to be a design and rendering nightmare. The London location shoot, like the others, was very restrictive. The main unit had four hours to shoot around the Tower of London embankment, and less than five minutes for the cleared Tower Bridge. Nearly every shot of the bridge was digital, built with painstaking detail from the capture sessions. And Spidey’s swinging around the bridge to fight the drones, of course, was all CG.
“No amount of capture material is too much these days for this type of show,” Sirrs said. “It’s far easier to simply state that it’s a combination of earth, air, fire, and water than it is to realize it in some visually comprehensible manner. Original designs kept the four elemental components much more rigidly separated from one another, but that ended up being confusing in anything other than a super wide overview shot.”
In the end, the designers went for “a more homogeneous final combination look,” he said. They opted instead to feature the individual elements being added into the mix, one by one. “So that’s why you’ll see water tentacles rising from the Thames, then fire from an exploding bus being added into the mix, then clouds descending down to meet them.”