Filmmakers chronicle the effects of villainy

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For "Spider-Man 3," helmer Sam Raimi and his fellow filmmakers wanted to deliver something the audience had not seen before. So they set themselves a visual effects challenge by introducing two complex new villains — Sandman and Venom —according to producer Grant Curtis and visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, both veterans of the first two "Spider-Man" films.

Curtis also moonlighted on the project as an author. During production, the busy producer simultaneously penned "The Spider-Man Chronicles," a 233-page hardcover from Chronicle Books that details the making of the film and the creation of the villains.

From preproduction until the book was completed, Curtis said he wrote nightly to accurately document the process as well as provide unique details, including an early plan to have Adrian Toomes, or the Vulture, appear with Sandman as one of the film's villains. The Vulture eventually would be dropped in favor of Venom for plot reasons, but not before artists began to create sketches of the character.

The visual effects work began in early 2005, not long after wrapping "Spider-Man 2.1" for DVD. The result was 930 visual effects shots, shared by 14 visual effects houses, with Sony Pictures Imageworks again playing the leading role. To bring the new villains to the screen, Thomas Haden Church (Sandman) and Topher Grace (Venom) were participants in an elaborate pipeline that combined live action with photorealistic character work and effects animation.

Sandman proved to be the most ambitious of the villains yet seen in the "Spider-Man" films. "It was the most complex because he doesn't have one trick or one problem to solve; he was a shape-shifter with elements that took on different forms," Stokdyk said.

The VFX supervisor admitted that his general philosophy is not to reinvent the wheel if you don't have to, but for this undertaking, it was necessary. "We formed a sand development team at the start of the movie," he said, noting that this started with filming sand and how it behaves in various situations, such as when it is piled or blown in the wind. Stokdyk said software was developed to allow the visual effects team to re-create those behaviors in unprecedented numbers of CG particles; Curtis added that it took the equivalent of 10 man-years to write the code.

It also was necessary to integrate the character work with the effects work. "We had character animators build underlying shapes (i.e. Church's face)," Stokdyk said. "Those files went into the sand pipeline."

The R&D team also wrote the "glue" to bring these elements together. Additionally, the "Spider-Man 3" production was the first to use a new lighting package called Katana, which was developed at Imageworks and contributed to a more efficient pipeline. The process also involved a data-acquisition operation that included scanning and motion-capture with Church as well as data-management effort.

The "symbiotic goo" that produces Venom was another challenge. Curtis said that the goal was to have it look like an "organic being."

"It was a pretty critical character, and it had to have it own character," Stokdyk said. "It was designed to allow character animators to create skeletal fingers and joints. The character animators were also able to develop the motion."

Of course, the team knew the production came with huge expectations from comic book fans. "We felt the pressure of that every day," Stokdyk said. "We looked at the comic books for reference and for inspiration. And we are comic book fans, too."

Curtis also was mindful of the fans in preparing "Chronicles." The idea for the book actually came from Raimi after production of "Spider-Man 2," during which Curtis wrote frequent blog entries for fans on the movie's Web site.

Among the book elements is an early storyboard sketch of Vulture and Sandman atop a building. Curtis noted that to better accommodate the planned story line of "Spider-Man 3," Vulture was replaced with Venom. Before the switch, Stokdyk and his team had created an early previs and some animation tests.

It appears that the team liked Vulture, so will this comic book villain appear in "Spider-Man 4"? "I don't know the answer to that," Curtis said. "There are a lot of Marvel villains left. The future is wide open."
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