When the meta-verse splits apart in “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” prompting the return of Green Goblin (Willem Dafoe), Doc Ock (Alfred Molina), Electro (Jamie Foxx), Sandman (Thomas Haden Church), and Lizard (Rhys Ifans), major VFX upgrades were obviously required. Fortunately, the super villains felt right at home in the current MCU, thanks to the latest tech advancements in physical-based lighting, simulation, shading, and rendering.
Credit Marvel’s production VFX supervisor Kelly Port, who oversaw the cutting-edge work of Digital Domain 3.0, Sony Pictures Imageworks, and Luma Pictures, which did the heavy character lifting. They started from scratch and made improvements while adhering to the basic designs. Ock, Electro, and Sandman got the most emphasis, and the stunning results put “No Way Home” in the hunt for an Oscar nomination. “The technology from the Sam Raimi and Marc Webb movies are outmoded, but the latest advances and ability to iterate quickly have led to greater photorealism,” said Port.
For the tentacled Doc Ock, who wreaks havoc on a crowded bridge, DD — which previously worked on the Oscar-winning “Spider-Man 2” along with Imageworks — did a complete CG overhaul with finesse and flexibility. Previously, the tentacles were achieved through a combination of practical and CG (led by puppeteered tentacle arms).
“For Ock, aside from subtle costume changes, he pretty much looks the same,” added Port. “It’s a very complex rig because the tentacles needed to be quite long or short, depending on the purpose of a particular shot. If he’s in a confined space, we couldn’t have them be coiled up and long. DD 3.0 developed the rig since they previously worked on the character. You play with different things to make them longer, telescoping, increasing space in between the vertebrae, if you will, of the tentacles. Then, if you don’t see the source coming out of his back, you can elongate it to some degree that way too. And then, full six degrees of freedom rotation with each extension of the claws was [also] complex.”
The sequence was shot in Atlanta at the Lillith Studios backlot with a piece of highway over a period of several weeks, surrounded on three sides by 40-foot blue screens. The New York environment was recreated digitally with the use of background plates. The entrance went through several iterations in anticipation of the trailer. “We had a fully developed digital character by DD that could hold up in a medium to close shot, so we used that combination with live action with Alfred Molina on a platform rig or wires,” continued Port. “And because his legs needed to be swinging around and his costume needed to be moving for many of the shots, there was a lot of digital below the head. We wanted to maintain his performance. It can hold up now much better than previously.”
For Electro — which was worked on by Luma for his entrance; DD for an escape scene using Tony Stark’s Arc Reactor; and Imageworks for the final battle on the Statue of Liberty — there were several new wrinkles, including a more comic book-accurate look for his electricity. Previously, on “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” Imageworks created innovative lightning inside storm clouds in concert with complementary facial animation. Here, though, we see more of Foxx’s face and the electrical power is more layered and spectacular.
“When he gets into this world, he feeds off the energy from the power lines,” Port said. “Although he’s blue, the power going into him is yellow, in keeping with the warmer tone of the comics. Also, we used the star mask in a few frames as an Easter egg. Luma built a lot of systems as he’s phasing in and out of electricity, creating leading arcs that feather out where he’s going and then snap into place when he re-forms. For the end battle, Imageworks did these little feeler arcs as he’s hovering around without electricity, just as Jamie Foxx. It was nice to have a connection between his body and the scaffolding or the environment around him. Then he transforms into pure energy and these leading arcs would follow him and he’d snap into place as a more solid human shape.”
Meanwhile, Sandman looms large with his cohorts during the Statue of Liberty face off with the Spider-Man trio (Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield joining Holland). Imageworks previously created very complex sand simulation for “Spider-Man 3” involving fluid and gas sim hand-offs with clusters of sand, as well as a facial mesh for Church. Many of the same VFX artists worked on the upgrade, which was a lot easier. “But it’s still a big and complex simulation and finding that look of the character animation was difficult, facially, when he was talking, and even when he was large,” said Port.
“That needed to be tied together with sand simulations working with millions of particles,” Port continued. “But the latest technology allowed us to iterate and refine animation passes and simulations. You can do simpler ones with less sand grains, for example. Whether it’s sand in a simulation or a character standing, they’ve made everything look so much more real with light interaction, true bounce, and reflections based on the color of something. It’s integrated in the live-action or CG environment and sits in there more believably than ever before.”
As for the Spidey team effort on the Statue of Liberty, flying and webslinging were also improved by Imageworks. But it was vital to keep their individual styles intact amid all the mayhem in the dark. “We had three Spideys swinging around, so they each have their own characteristic pose, especially when all three land for the face off on the head of the statue,” added Port. “We worked hard to create an iconic image of the three of them landing and hitting their poses backlit by the moon. Swinging around is just great animation.”