When I paid my first visit to Sony Imageworks’ Culver City campus four years ago, it was difficult to get a handle on where the company was headed. Ostensibly, I was there to interview the legendary John Dykstra* (who had just received an Academy Award nomination for his visual effects work on Spider-Man – along with Scott Stokdyk, Anthony LaMolinara and John Frazier), but the publicist charged with keeping me from rampaging all over the office in search of Spider-Man 2 production art seemed just as keen to show off the company’s then nascent facilities. She was also tireless in her promotion of "The ChubbChubbs", a charming little cartoon that had received a nod for Best Animated Short Film. Usually, the hard sell makes me skeptical, but there was an infectious energy coursing through the dimly lit halls of Imageworks. And what with titans like Dykstra, Ken Ralston and Kevin Mack (the genius who built a brain for the opening of Fight Club) mucking about, it seemed a distinct possibility that, in a few years time, Imageworks might pose a serious challenge to the f/x primacy of ILM and WETA.
And that’s exactly what happened. "The ChubbChubbs" went on to upset Pixar’s "Mike’s New Car" for the Oscar in 2003, while Dykstra, Stokdyk, LaMolinara and Frazier would finally get their much-deserved Best Visual Effects trophy in 2005 for Spider-Man 2.
Walking onto Imageworks’ expanded campus last September for a visual effects presentation timed to coincide with the DVD release of Spider-Man 3, I could sense the newfound confidence. Four years later, they’re no longer playing the part of the (corporate-backed) upstart. When Stokdyk wrapped up his introduction to the expo by brandishing the Oscar he’d won for Spider-Man 2, the intimation was unmistakable: we want another one of these.
Given the recent spate of f/x house tours (ILM hosted journalists for a Transformers DVD press day a couple of weeks ago, while New Line shuttled a large group of reporters out to Rhythm & Hues’ facilities to build positive buzz for The Golden Compass), this could very well be the most aggressive visual effects Oscar campaign in recent memory (Pirates of the Caribbean: At World’s End is another worthy contender). And since three of the four are deeply flawed films (the jury’s out on The Golden Compass, but… let’s just say the deliberations aren’t proceeding smoothly), there really is a need to get out there and stump.
This wasn’t the case with Spider-Man 2; that film was as seamless a melding of story and f/x as I’ve ever seen (and that elevated train battle wasn’t half-bad, either). Spider-Man 3, on the other hand, suffered from numerous narrative deficiencies, which occasionally overwhelmed the stellar work turned in by Stokdyk and his crew: Peter Nofz (digital effects supervisor), Spencer Cook (animation supervisor) and Jonathan Cohen (lead effects technical director). Case in point, here’s what I wrote about the Sandman’s atomized origin back last May:
"Though Thomas Haden Church unquestionably gives the best performance in Spider-Man 3 as the morally conflicted Marko, his arc is crudely attached to the main story, which is concerned with Peter’s estrangement from his family and friends. Obviously, when he discovers that Marko was responsible for Uncle Ben’s murder, Peter’s thirst for revenge drives perhaps the biggest wedge of all, but getting to this point requires a lot of clunky cross-cutting; for instance, The Sandman’s origin scene – an abusive marriage of underdressed soundstage and hyper-imaginative CG – happens so far outside of the primary action that Raimi might as well have arranged for introductory comic books to be handed out at the box office. As for Marko’s relationship with his daughter and ex-wife; yes, it’s poignantly handled, but, again, it only distends the setup."
In the context of Spider-Man 3‘s overstuffed first act, everything about Marko’s atomization is assaultive, and all the nifty little grace notes – the individual grains of sand tumbling over each other, the body half-forming only to fall apart – are lost in the cacophony. It wasn’t until Jonathan Cohen gave us the painstaking ground-up on the realization of Sandman that I began to appreciate the artistry – which, by the way, necessitated the creation of new software that would allow the team to photorealistically simulate the spill of sand. I can’t imagine immersing oneself in the study of sand like these poor bastards had to do, but the research paid off (most of this test footage can be seen on the "Grains of Sand" featurette on the DVD); Sandman is easily the series’ most successfully rendered villain (and the armored car brawl is the closest Spider-Man 3 comes to equalling the delirious heights of Spider-Man 2).
Venom posed a different challenge altogether, as scientists haven’t done a great deal of research into the properties of sentient goo. So, according to Nofz, the team had to ask themselves a series of tough, spirit-coarsening philosophical questions: What is goo? How liquid is goo? How far can it jump? Their early answers did not please director Sam Raimi at all; he wanted the goo strands to spread out across the body like fingers. But the fingers had to lift, not slide, kinda like a pissed-off Wacky Wall-Crawler. Explaining this is folly. When you buy the DVD and watch the extras, you’ll see what I mean.
The crew then had to differentiate the movement of Venom from Spider-Man, which they accomplished by thinking of the former as non-human (during this trip to Imageworks, I learned that CG animators watch a lot of animal videos; Spencer Cook’s office was filled with DVDs of the stuff – supplemented, oddly enough, by a few Hammer horror flicks). This depiction of Venom may not have been popular with many fans, but, as a CG character, I think it works just fine. Basically, if you didn’t like Venom, blame Raimi.
Speaking of Mr. Spam in a Cabin, Raimi graciously showed up at the end of the Imageworks presentation to praise the work of his f/x team. And he wisely bolted before the first question about Spider-Man 4 could get lobbed his way.
Though I didn’t leave Imageworks with a newfound appreciation for Spider-Man 3, seeing the isolated efforts of Stokdyk, Nofz, Cook and Cohen at least re-directed my discontent. Though I still think the final battle with the giant sand beast looks unfinished at times, the overall f/x turned in by Imageworks is worthy of the high standard they’ve set for themselves. Don’t hang them for the screenplay.
Spider-Man 3 hits DVD October 30, 2007.
*If you can find that interview somewhere else online, hit me with a link.