Web-slinging hero comes alive with Autodesk

The opening sequence, the birth of Sandman and the slimy venom goo in Spider-Man 3 were all part of the visual treats that audiences enjoyed in the theatres this season. Digital Studio takes a look at the tools that were used to create them.
Analysis, Delivery & Transmission
CafeFX used Maya 3D animation software for modelling, texturing, rigging and animating characters on approximately 50% of the shots completed by Image
CafeFX used Maya 3D animation software for modelling, texturing, rigging and animating characters on approximately 50% of the shots completed by Image

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Spider-Man 3 did so well in the Middle East market that it is reported to be the first Hollywood movie to have grossed more than US $1 million in the Arab world. In fact, the total revenue from the movie in Arab countries is reported to have gone up to a whopping US $5 million. Clearly, this interest from the Arab world merits a closer look at the visual effects in this film.

Sony Pictures Imageworks brought to life the tangle of computer-generated villains and heroes in Spider-Man 3 with the help of post production house, CafeFX.

CafeFX used Autodesk's Maya 3D animation software for modelling, texturing, rigging, match-moving, character animation and visual effects animation on approximately 50% of the shots completed by Imageworks.

The firm used Flame for character face replacements and to composite live footage of the main characters into fully computer-generated environments.

"One of our most significant accomplishments on Spider-Man 3 was integrating character animation with effects animation, as they were very closely related," says Peter Nofz, Sony Pictures Imageworks' digital effects supervisor for Spider-Man 3. "Maya's flexibility and adaptability made it possible for character animators to work concurrently with effects animators to produce seamless results."

CafeFX also created a 46-shot sequence vertigo-inducing crane disaster for Spider-Man 3, setting the stage for a classic Spidey rescue.

 

The scene opens with a steel beam, suspended from an out-of-control construction crane, spinning towards a glass-encased skyscraper. From her photo shoot taking place inside the skyscraper, Gwen Stacy (Bryce Dallas Howard) reacts to the impending disaster and the audience sees her dawning horror in the reflection of the windows. She dives for cover as the beam slices through the building, shattering windows and shearing off support columns. The off-balance crane then swings in a wild arc and takes out the floor below, causing the floor that Gwen is on to collapse and tilt at a perilous angle.

CafeFX integrated hundreds of animated CG elements with live action cinematography, models and miniatures, digital doubles and photographic backgrounds of New York in the hybrid production of this signature sequence, which is also seen from multiple angles and triple takes.

"The crane disaster sequence challenged us on all levels," says Scott Gordon, visual effects supervisor at CafeFX, who oversaw the production of visual effects for the movie. "In order for the action to work, it had to play out against the ultimate choreography, integration and interaction of countless practical and computer graphics elements."

Photographic backgrounds, shot by Imageworks, were tiled and mapped by CafeFX onto the geometry of the Manhattan cityscape throughout the sequence. A real steel beam was intercut with a cgi beam; the model crane cab was augmented with cgi glass and a cgi crane. Plates of an actual building in New York were juxtaposed with its cgi counterpart, only to be destroyed in a hail of procedurally animated and propagated glass, rubble and smoke.

CafeFX also crafted scenes including the rivets that burst from a subway water tank; burning butter and beaten eggs in a skillet; a foggy field; eye shield extensions for the villain Venom; and tears in Sandman's eyes to enhance emotion.

The 'Birth of Sandman' is another process worthy of mention. This sequence was the most technically complex and dramatic sequence in the entire film and Flame was used to create this. During the three minutes of on-screen magic, a pile of sand slowly gathers itself into a sentient being and poignantly transforms into the human that is Thomas Haden Church in the role of Flint Marko. Audiences deeply sense Sandman's emotions as they flicker from confusion to loss, distress, grief, love, and finally, determination.

The first shot in the Birth of Sandman sequence is approximately three minutes long (2,672 frames) without a single cutaway, starting with a few dozen grains of sand that gradually gather with billions of others as the creature is formed. The computer-generated Sandman was created at Sony Pictures Imageworks.

"The Sandman shots involved many paint-fixes to blend between different takes of sand simulations," says Nofz from Sony Pictures Imageworks. "Flame's versatility and speed enabled us to deliver extraordinary results. Overall, Flame was used in the final step of the production pipeline and it was the tool of choice for many difficult changes and fixes."

In addition, Sony Pictures Imageworks used Maya to design the 'venom' goo. The use of this software in the design of the evil, shape-shifting symbiote allowed animators to build goo-rigs on a shot-by-shot basis. The artists could then animate each shot with those rigs, retaining very precise control over the animation. The result is a powerful, alien-looking black silky goo that slithers and pulls itself along with dramatic fluidity.

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