There's something special about Spider-Man: Homecoming. The combination of being in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, of having a younger, naturally athletic actor, of having today's modern technology for effects, and that extra "intangible" factor just makes this movie a joy, and critics and fans alike have responded to the film as such. Now we have a Spider-Man that fits into the MCU not just because they say so, but in tone and quality.
The visual effects of the movie are amazing and spectacular like Spidey himself, and that comes from multiple VFX houses working together as well as the practical special effects team on set. Their cohesive nature, brought together by director Jon Watts, and attention to detail made for some of the best action scenes in recent memory. When it comes to Spider-Man, Digital Domain's VFX Supervisor Lou Pecora told SYFY WIRE that the actor himself made things much easier on them.
"In this particular case, a lot of the performance is driven by Tom Holland, and he's very athletic – every bit of it is him. You don't see Superman doing a lot of flips; Batman does a lot of martial arts but not necessarily acrobatics, so that's unique to Spider-Man," Pecora said. "Having a very gymnastic actor doing the mocap himself, doing a lot of the wire work on set himself made it easy. We either rotocaptured him or mocapped him."
Pecora said that the overall idea from Marvel Studios, who drove the creative bus for the collaboration with Sony Pictures, came at the very beginning of production. Executive Producer Victoria Alonso gave the whole team a way to look at their approach to this new version of Spider-Man.
"Up until now, we've seen Spider-Man movies which are basically action movies that star a high school or college kid. This is a high school movie that has action in it," Alonso told them. "That makes all the difference, it's what gives all the heart to it," Pecora said. "It's a great thing to be a part of."
We spoke with Pecora about one of the big scenes that Digital Domain specifically took point on: the Staten Island Ferry scene that Peter didn't exactly come out of ahead.
Lou, let's talk about one of the big set pieces right away, the Staten Island Ferry scene. I know you worked with both practical and digital effects for that scene, which definitely paid off – you get a realism from that. But your VFX is also telling the story, the character moments for Peter; how do you balance the focus of the storytelling and the VFX spectacle?
Lou Pecora: That's a fantastic question, and insightful. The thing about this movie; I've been on a ton of movies before where it's just "do a cool shot for cool's sake." There's a lot of subtle stuff in this sequence that I don't know if even the rabid fans such as yourself would notice [on first viewing].
The whole deal with this sequence is that it's a crucial turning point where Peter goes it alone despite Tony telling him not to, and he blows it. Throughout the sequence, we're constantly reinforcing how he blows it. He starts out, he gets that phone call, which was a late add to the sequence, that came pretty late, maybe February? That's the thing about Marvel, they're constantly beating on these sequences and improving them, and there's no ego – whoever's idea the addition was, if it's good for the scene, it goes in. I love making movies that way, so they're a lot of fun to make movies with.
But this sequence has moments where it had to be clear that Peter screwed up. There's some subtle stuff here, for instance, when he pulls the alien gun away from The Vulture, it's him web-tazing the gun that overcharged the Chitauri crystal, and overloaded the gun, which caused it to malfunction. Then it hit the deck, which broke the focusing on the front of it and further damaged it, again on Peter. Then he webs it down, and that's when it cuts the Ferry.
Then, after the Ferry is cut in half, there's a moment where, originally, we had it that he slings his webs on everything, and a piece breaks away and that's what causes the Ferry to ultimately give, it was holding by one web and that web snapped a railing off and the whole thing split. But the creatives at Marvel saw that sequence and said, "No, no – he needs to have missed one of the spots."
This is the kind of attention to detail I love, for this kind of stuff. If he grabbed that rail and hit it 100%, it would be the suit's fault for having not calculated the weight, the load bearing of the hand rail, so then in a way it's Tony Stark's fault. But because Peter missed one spot, and we go out of the way to tell you he missed it, that's what causes it to all fall apart.
So the whole thing from top to bottom reinforces that he made an error in judgment. He made a series of errors, and it falls back to him.
Yeah, that paid off, the idea that he missed it by just a percentage point or two, it can only be the human error versus the computer's exactness.
Yeah, and good on the director, Jon Watts. These movies are so easy to just get crazy with the CG cameras, but he was very intent the whole time that if you can't do something with a real camera, don't do it with a CG one. The velocities, the trajectories, the lensing, all of it has to play as real.
I remember on my first day of shooting this, my first interaction with him was with the bunch of cars parked in the Ferry, which you know you can't do that in the real Staten Island Ferry anymore, but we had to have it for the movie. He stops, yells "Cut!" and goes over and opens a passenger door, and one of the cars had a seatbelt buckled. He says, "Who's going to buckle the seatbelt when they're not in the car?" I was so impressed by him, this guy is really looking close. All these little details, and it's so cool, I love the fact that he's paying that close attention to it. He cares terrifically about all the details in this movie.
You're working with a real-life object here, the Staten Island Ferry, something thousands ride every day, and that people know really well. When you're working with something real that's the base of your big VFX sequence, how does that change things? It has to be believable for people that see this object every day.
For sure. It helps that it's a real object. We got to spend two full 13-, 14-hour days with a ferry that the Department of Transportation had docked in the shipyard in Staten Island for us. We spent those days canvasing it, taking pictures of every nook and cranny, doing Lidar scans of the whole boat, where you're laser-scanning the whole thing to use as the basis of the model.
Then the sequence was shot on, one, a real ferry in New York, and also on a set piece in Atlanta that was built, just a front or back, because it's symmetrical, so it could be either side depending how we dressed it. That set piece could split in half and be filled with water – and they got painstakingly detailed; they ordered benches from the supplier that supplies the actual ferry line with that sort of Atari 2600 wood paneling [laughs], and the exact green paint and the exact orange paint. The dimensions were a little off for the set piece, so that's one of the things we did digitally was stitch a few extra pieces on.
That orange, you know from riding it, is a surreal thing, it's this super-saturated thing, and we were lucky to have real reference. You're not so lucky with a Chitauri egg or a ferry-splitting energy burst, you know?
Dan Sudick, the special effects guy, his team built this tank that could flood that entire set with 40,000 gallons of water in less than 10 seconds. So when you see the cars washing out, a lot of that was real, so we had to match it with our CG water, and some of the cars were real and some were CG. The real cars, some of them were on wires, and Dan's just great – that set could split in half in 10 seconds and push back together in 12. He had the cars on wires and these sort of computer-controlled motors on them to move them the exact right way, all precisely controlled. It was pretty cool!
Sounds like you guys worked very much in tandem between the practical and visual effects. Where does your team come in?
Yeah, I was on set for it, working with Dan when we were shooting. The sparks – the sparks are weird, he put this cool material in them where the sparks barb out, you get one spark that splits into three more. That was really cool, so he showed me a bunch of those on set so we could match them when we did our CG sparks to blend in with his.
It's super-collaborative, and he was able to sit there with me on set and point out parts that we'd have to take over, that when stuff was inside the cracks popped open performed correctly. So we worked pretty closely, and Dan's a great guy that puts a lot of thought into what he does with production.
Spider-Man: Homecoming is in theaters now.