[Editor’s note: The following post contains spoilers for “Spider-Man: Far From Home.”]
While figuring out the big battles with the latest MCU additions, Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) and The Elementals, the “Spider-Man: Far From Home” VFX team was stymied by, of all things, “The Peter Tingle.” You know, Aunt May’s (Marisa Tomei) cute description of Peter Parker’s (Tom Holland) innate ability to anticipate imminent danger, commonly known as “Spider-Sense.”
In “Avengers: Infinity War,” for example, we witnessed the hair standing on his arm with the arrival of Thanos. But director Jon Watts and Marvel wanted to explore the super power more creatively in “Far From Home,” especially after the innovative, Oscar-winning, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” offered such boldly graphic animated versions of it.
“‘Into The Spider-Verse’ used that ability to great success and there was definitely a desire to replicate that in a live-action fashion,” said Janek Sirrs, the production visual effects supervisor, “but without retreading familiar ground and resorting to super slow motion, or virtual camera moves.”
Sony Pictures Imageworks
However, the VFX team was immediately confronted with the vast differences between animation and live action. “We couldn’t come up with a live-action analogy to the graphic wiggly lines that made as much sense,” Sirrs said. “The choice boiled down to effects that made you wonder why the other characters in the scene didn’t see them as well, which would obviously blow the whole gag, or something much more elaborate that would involve going into Peter’s head space….and most scenes were paced such that we couldn’t afford the screen time to do that.”
“We also explored whether ‘Spider-Sense’ was some sort of persistent extra sensory input,” he added, “so that he could see things in fight sequence that we couldn’t, for example. But that just ended up feeling more like Daredevil’s sonar vision, and we didn’t want to simply repeat imagery that the audience would have seen before. ‘Spider-Sense’ would be a great thing to crack, but I think it would need to be approached far more holistically — specific scenes would have to be written and shot with it in mind, as opposed to trying to add it into any existing material.”
So they focused on the bigger picture: Parker’s continuing journey to get comfortable in his own Spidey skin while maintaining the playful tone established in “Homecoming.” “His swings, web shooting, and combo moves could be more extreme/elaborate, but they’d still include a moment of being off balance, an awkward landing, or a plan he hadn’t quite fully thought through,” said Sirrs. “I’d probably describe Peter’s reach as always exceeding his grasp as he refines his superhero skills, but not enough to mean that he doesn’t ultimately triumph.”
Yet “Far From Home” digs much deeper into Parker’s troubled psyche in dealing with post “Endgame” confusion and grief. But what sets it apart from the rest of the MCU is that it’s actually a meta movie about VFX as lethal smoke and mirrors. While on a high school summer field trip in Venice, Parker is pressed into action when the world is attacked by bizarre multiverse monsters called The Elementals. He teams up with a superhero from another realm, Mysterio (Gyllenhaal), only it turns out to be an elaborate con involving mocap animation, simulation, and deadly drones.
The Elementals consist of Earth, Water, Fire, and Air, and are based on previous Spider-Man baddies. “I’m not sure which came first in the development process, the idea of using the comic book villains (Sand-Man, Hydro-Man, Molten-Man, and Cyclone), or elemental creatures that would be subsequently assigned to those villains,” said Sirrs. “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.”
Underneath the powerful, elemental creatures were animated figures often driven by mocap performances. And these performances propelled all of the complex sims needed to believably cast off water spray or drip molten lava. Yet the mocap performances were slowed down to convey the proper sense of mass. Scanline did Earth and Water, Luma focused on Fire, and Sony Pictures Imageworks made the final Hybrid creation.
Mysterio, meanwhile, was culled from the comics as well, yet his fishbowl helmet, cape, and green smoke required a radical cinematic makeover by Marvel’s head of visual development, Ryan Meinerding, who added Thor’s gold armor and Doctor Strange’s flashy cape into the mix. “He’s a larger-than-life showman at heart so we tried a more flamboyant look, almost as if Liberace had become a superhero,” added Sirrs.
However, the overall challenge was making a more location-based Spider-Man movie on a very short production schedule. They shot in London, Venice, Prague, and Spain. “It’s great to get away from the typical blue/green screen stage or backlot used for VFX-heavy shows, but I don’t think we were totally prepared for how restrictive some of the locations proved to be,” said Sirrs.
Venice meant dealing with swarms of tourists and having to bring every bit of gear in by barge or boat, and it was important to keep the VFX footprint as small and as nimble as possible. They captured everything associated with the environment with the plan to create any shot they might conceive in post, not blowing the shooting schedule or overstaying their welcome.
Sony Pictures Imageworks
“Case in point, the tower that Peter semi-successfully lowers down is actually a church bell tower, and we weren’t allowed any physical access to the church during photography,” Sirrs said. “Instead we had to rely upon a small bell tower set piece built on the backlot at Leavesden studios in the UK, and the Italian drone crew worked to acquire as much photography as possible, carefully dancing around the real tower. And while we were able to dress the square with some lightweight debris, all the actual destruction and water FX all had to be fully digital.”
For the trippy “Illusion Battle” with Mysterio (handled by Framestore), Parker confronts a barrage of nightmarish imagery about his fears and grief. The creative opportunity was wide open with no rules of logic or physics to obey. In fact, they even looked to “Looney Tunes” for inspiration. “Initially, we charged our storyboard and concepts artists with simply coming up with as many cool images and transitions as possible, which generated a fantastic wall of art for everyone to admire, but nothing that even vaguely resembled a meaningful sequence,” said Sirrs.
“It wasn’t until we hit upon the idea of a Mysterio voice-over cataloging Peter’s conflicting emotions — guilt over Tony’s death, fear of losing his girl, not being ready to be an Avenger — that any sort of narrative structure started to really fall into place. From there we could see which of the existing generated imagery might be applicable, and where we might need fresh visuals.”
Sirrs said it was like black box theater, with a touch of Mysterio’s signature green smoke thrown in for good measure. It was a blank slate to challenge Spidey. “We actually strived to make the environments and the gags feel as practical as possible, like some sort of elaborate Broadway production (with an infinite SPFX budget, of course), rather than something more cosmic that would be more at home in a Doctor Strange movie,” he said.
“One of our hero references was actually the Daffy Duck cartoon, ‘Duck Amuck,’ by Chuck Jones, where Daffy is tormented by a sadistic animator that constantly changes his surroundings, clothing, etc. But I’m sure that we borrowed liberally from films such as ‘Paprika.’ ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street,’ and others that deal with dream worlds. ‘Pink Elephants on Parade’ from ‘Dumbo’ was also a source of inspiration for the chaos that happens toward the end of the sequence.”
But given how long it took for the various beats to coalesce, it quickly became clear that the majority of the sequence would have to be generated in post, using only Holland’s mocap as the foundation. “In the final sequence, I think the only live-action components were MJ [Zendaya] on the Eiffel Tower, and a couple of angles on Spider-Man in the cemetery beat. The rest was entirely digital,” Sirrs said.