Spider-Man: No Way Home, directed by Jon Watts, may be Spider-Man's movie – his third set within Marvel's cinematic universe – but Peter Parker's biggest adventure yet also necessitated a spell-casting sorcerer, a handful of sinister supervillains, two more friendly neighborhood wall-crawlers, and the dissolution of the multiverse as we know it. Which is to say: A Marvel-ous amount of visual effects.
Those came courtesy of the VFX team for Spider-Man: No Way Home, led by Kelly Port (production VFX supervisor), Chris Waegner (supervisor for Sony Pictures Imageworks), Scott Edelstein (supervisor for Digital Domain) and Daniel Sudick (Marvel Studios' senior special effects supervisor), who are all nominated for Best Achievement in Visual Effects at this year's Oscars.
"This film was made during a pandemic with the majority of the artists working from home. And that is just a testament to everybody who worked on this project," Waegner tells A.frame. "If you had said to me, 'You're going to make a blockbuster Spider-Man movie -- and it has to be done at home.' I'd be like, 'That's impossible. There's no way that we can do that!' But we did it."
Below, Port, Waegner and Edelstein discuss digital doubles, de-aging technology and CG super-people and reveal the special effects required to bring Tom Holland, Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield together on-screen.
A.frame: With a Marvel project like this, you're going to get your due for the big battles and all of the superpowers – as you should – but what's something the VFX team worked on that maybe people wouldn't assume or that you aren't given credit for?
Scott Edelstein: The invisible effects.
Kelly Port: It's one of those things that we're actually very proud of. A great example is the work that Scott and the Digital Domain team did on the bridge sequence, where there are spectacular effects there. It looks like it's just shot on a bridge somewhere, but to shut down the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway for two weeks, it becomes cost prohibitive at a certain point. So, we built a relatively small set piece of the freeway -- just one side of it and a little bit of the exit ramp -- and basically used that for that entire scene. But everything outside of that is four square miles of fully photorealistic digital environments. In Chris' sequence that Imageworks did for the big third act battle, [we had] like two or three stories of a little bit of scaffolding for that whole thing -- and maybe a third of the bottom of the shield -- and then a little tiny piece of the base of the statue with some wreckage around it. Everything else is completely digital visual effects.
Chris Waegner: Another huge invisible effect is -- after principal photography had finished -- the studio decided they wanted Tom to have a "hybrid Spider-Man suit," as they called it, so, the shot complexity became much larger. What was a simple blue screen shot of him hugging MJ in what would normally have been a background replacement, now we had to replace his whole body with a digital double. And the wrinkles that you take for granted, the subtle movements Tom does with his body, we had to replicate all that with a digital Spider-Man suit. And there's really nowhere to cheat, because the filmmakers can go back and go, "We're missing a wrinkle here. We're missing a little shoulder twitch or something that Tom did in camera. Let's get that all back in." It was a lot of work. A lot of different departments had to weigh in on that.
Scott Edelstein: That's for, like, half the film. Essentially, once he gets the nanotech off of Doc Ock's arms and he gets that hybrid suit, his body is fully CG for the rest of the movie. At least from the neck down.
This movie features a rogues' gallery of returning villains. You're working off their past appearances, and then Jon Watts and the vis dev team have certain ideas, but were there things along the way that the VFX teams discovered or ideas you had about how to evolve the villains for No Way Home?
Kelly Port: You want to stay true to the spirit and overall stylistic impression from the previous films, but if there's an opportunity to enhance the look, make it look cooler -- for lack of a better word -- you want to take advantage of that.
Chris Waegner: Jon and Kelly were very open to us exploring Electro a little bit differently than he'd been done in the previous movie. Now that he's got an Arc Reactor on him, we have full carte blanche to come up with the new look. While there was a visually interesting look that had been done on the previous movie -- and I had even worked on that previous movie -- so, I know what was entailed in it, we wanted his electricity in this movie to be a little bit more threatening, to be a little bit more violent. And I think it lent itself to this really interesting kind of staccato lightning that we could do inside the shot. So, in the third act when Electro is present, he's super-charged, and there's this storm of electricity always present around him, it allowed us to be very creative with lightning. He didn't necessarily need to be in shot -- it could just be the Spider-Men talking -- and we could do some really interesting, dynamic lighting with it. I'm really happy about how that came out.
Kelly Port: For Electro, going more towards the comic-true yellows and warmer tones of the electricity -- versus the blue. When we first introduce him in powerline corridor, you'll notice that he's that translucent electricity blue kind of vascular system, but, as he's drawing that energy from the MCU electricity, it gets warmer and warmer, and then, once he fully charges up and he's fighting with Spider-Man, then he's full-on yellow. That sort of evolves, like Chris says, at the very end, where he even has that star mask and things like that are fun to play with.
Scott Edelstein: For us, it was Sandman. That was a character that every facility had a slightly different version of. Like, Digital Domain's doing him more in human form. The powerline corridor, he's this giant sandstorm, but not nearly as big as what Chris and the Sony [Imageworks] team did for the third act. So, that was a character that evolved for us. It started with a lot of tests really early on and started not even looking very human-like, then -- all the way to -- it has to be a pretty good representation of Thomas Haden Church. But all we had was a voice for him. We had mo-cap from a body double and the director, Jon, did a lot of reference shoots of himself showing us what he wanted, but his face and body was all hand keyframed animation from our team.
Digital de-aging seems like one of the most difficult effects to pull off, because, if it's not done well, it's all anyone will notice. You de-age two actors here -- Willem Dafoe and Alfred Molina -- so, what goes into getting that right? And how do you know when you have gotten it right?
Kelly Port: We had the advantage of knowing what it needed to look like, and that's part of that process -- just going through those two other films, and really just accumulating every possible image from that, and using that as reference. Two different companies worked on that, SSVFX and MARZ [which is Monsters, Aliens, Robots, Zombies]. They have their own proprietary techniques and, as much as I try to dig into that, they don't give me the full secret recipes. But I do believe there's a lot of artistry involved and it's a lot of reference, some A.I. involved, some proprietary tracking trying to get that tracked onto the face in a very seamless way. And they both did a fantastic job.
Definitely, it's a process. It had to hit literally every single shot of those two actors. The other visual effects studios like Imageworks, Digital Domain, Framestore -- we had 12 digital effects studios working on this film -- they would already be in progress on a lot of these shots already, but they would just swap in the de-aged plate when it was ready. So, we had to go through a whole separate approval process before we even sent it to the next studios down the line. A lot of cross-pollination and collaboration and shared work on this show.
When Spidey is fully suited up and swinging around, that's more often than not the work of the VFX team. I have to imagine by now you've perfected doing one Spider-Man, but in this, you have three distinct Spider-Men swinging around together. What challenges did you encounter working on those sequences?
Chris Waegner: You're absolutely right. When you're focusing on one Spider-Man, you're like, "OK, we can make him look beautiful." Very early in the filmmaking process, we do laborious digital doubles and you look at their suits in neutral lighting and you're like, "This is going to be no problem. They're all so unique in their suit designs." But the third act battle all takes place at night under specific lighting conditions. Pretty early on, Jon and Kelly had the same concerns of, "How do we identify each one of these Spider-Men when they're all swinging around together?" Our animation supervisor, Rich Smith, and I, we ended up just going back to the archives. We went back to old movies, got video clips of iconic Tobey movements, iconic moments of Andrew Garfield, looked at how they fling their webs and their signature poses as they're flying through the sky. Like, how much does he arc his back? How much does he get into a comic book pose? We started identifying each one of the Spider-Men's spider-styles, and then, as we got into shots where there were several of them -- where it might be confusing, we went back to that reference and worked with the animators, to say, "Hey, this would be a really cool moment to do this from The Amazing Spider-Man."
Kelly Port: Towards the end of post-production, I remember our editor, Jeff Ford, was in a screening room and he was working on the final mix and said, "Hey, you wanna something cool?" Keep in mind, I've seen these things hundreds and hundreds -- if not thousands of times -- at this point at various different levels , the live action photography, the pre-vis, the animation, going through the first pass lighting renders, the initial comp versions, many, many, many, many, many iterations of this, I've seen. So, he showed me the part where, after the sandstorm, the three Spideys say, "I love you, man!" and it's that tracking shot behind them as they run and jump off the scaffolding -- and you get those signature poses that Chris is talking about -- in the air, and they all land in their signature landings. With this final mix just blasting in a screening room, I was like, "Oh my god." I got chills. That was weirdly the first moment where I was like, "This is awesome. This is special, and it's wonderful, and people are just going to lose it." And they did.
A big VFX shot at the end of the movie that could affect the entire MCU moving forward is the look and design of the multiverse breaking open. What sort of input and creative influence did you have in creating how a multiverse opening up would actually look on-screen?
Kelly Port: That was a process. As you can imagine, it is affecting things like that. So, a lot of that deep background stuff that looks like that purple nebula, we were referring to that as the Nexus of All Realities. In my mind, that's what that was. And we riffed on Loki, to some degree, because what is happening here is reality is being fractured. We're not necessarily dealing with splitting timelines like in Loki, but we're seeing this hub of the creation of different realities, and this particular reality that we're in is being ripped apart, and we're seeing what's behind the curtain, if you will. From a visual perspective, we wanted to reference what happened during the spell going wrong initially in the Sanctum basement. So, there's very much a visual echo of those sort of ideas. So, instead of the walls and the stone being torn apart, it's the very fabric of space and reality now opening and revealing that deeper Nexus of All Realities.
Even in the "spell goes wrong" sequence, we show Lizard sort of forming in that light kind of way and wanted to keep it really subtle and not too in your face. But that was supposed to be Lizard -- and that is Lizard. So, those were the ideas that we're playing with. That's a little piece of reality that has broken off. And then, you have to introduce all these complications with Doctor Strange and his magic, and trying to repair it, and what does that look like? It was a highly collaborative process with Chris and his team at Imageworks, and then, with Framestore, who did the "spell goes wrong" scene, and making sure those were connecting visually and telling the right story.
We see glimmers of villains coming through that Nexus. Were those dictated by Jon and the writing team, or did you get to play around with who was include there?
Kelly Port: Yes. It was a little bit of everything. We have such a great pre-visualization team, and then, Chris and his team, so, we just throw out ideas of Spider-Men villains -- and they didn't have to all be villains. It just had to be people who knew that Spider-Man was Peter Parker, so, there's going to be good people and villains and you name it. We threw out different ideas. Scorpion and Venom and Kraven and Rhino. And some generic characters. We threw in some generic characters. They're people who just happen to know. It could be another version of Aunt May or a friend, like a Ned-type character. It could be anybody. There's infinite number [of other realities].
Chris and Scott, this is your first Oscar nomination. What does it mean to be recognized in this way for this movie?
Chris Waegner: It's a great honor. I've worked on several of the Spider-Men [movies] in the past, but it was such a privilege to work on this film. You know, there's hundreds of artists who work on this film. We're just the guys in front. But the reality is there's a lot of artists who put in many, many hours on this project and it's a privilege to represent them as well.
Scott Edelstein: You could say thousands of artists! It's very cool to get the opportunity to work on a project like this. It's great when it does so well and it's received so well by the public. Then get the recognition of your peers. Winning aside, just the nomination is very cool.
Kelly, you were previously nominated for Infinity War. Does this feel different or mean anything different to you?
Kelly Port: I want to echo what Chris and Scott said. We're representing the largest department on these kinds of films, and it is just a wonderful example of highly creative and highly technical and complex collaboration. There's absolutely no way that this could have been achieved with a few people. To be honest, it's a miracle that these things ever get made! And all of these thousands of people working on these films share in that honor of being recognized. So, to me, it's not any different. I feel just as proud of this. The excitement and honor of being nominated is just wonderful and will never get old.