SIGGRAPH: Spider-Man Swings in to Celebrate Imageworks' 25th Anniversary

The annual CG confab is set to open at the Los Angeles Convention Center on July 30.
Courtesy of Columbia Pictures
Ironman and Spider-Man — or at least their digital doubles — in 'Spider-Man: Homecoming.'

Spider-Man will be jumping into Siggraph — the annual international conference and exhibition on computer graphics and interactive techniques produced by ACM Siggraph. The teen superhero's latest incarnation in Spider-Man: Homecoming will be the topic of one session, featuring the film's visual effects team. And the film's main VFX house, Sony Pictures Imageworks, will be spotlighted in another as it celebrates its 25th anniversary.

Imageworks — which has created VFX on countless films, from Beowulf to Alice in Wonderland, and worked in conjunction with sister company Sony Pictures Animation on such projects as the Hotel Transylvania franchise and The Emoji Movie (out July 28) — also has handled the visual effects on all the live-action Spider-Man movies from 2002 on. Looking back on the company's history, senior VFX supervisor Jerome Chen, an Oscar nominee for 1999's Stuart Little and one of Imageworks' first employees, recalls, "When I started, there were six people in one conference room, and all the rendering power was in that room — maybe 24 processors with a giant air-conditioning unit. Now we have tens of thousands of processors and a thousand artists."

Imageworks, as part of a studiowide cost-cutting effort, moved its headquarters from Culver City to Vancouver in 2014, and during that time, what visual effects artists are capable of conjuring onscreen has changed dramatically. For example, 2014's The Amazing Spider-Man 2 featured a battle in Times Square, but instead of filming in the iconic Manhattan location, the team created all the backdrops digitally. "It was the most extensive re-creation of Times Square ever done," says Chen. "It took weeks to photograph for reference and then eight months with 30 artists to re-create the background. Then you had to craft the shots. I suspect now that could take half the time. In two years, a quarter of the time."

That's because technology is advancing at breakneck speed — computers are more powerful and access to cloud-rendering services offers the ability to ramp up for big VFX sequences. Using drones, it's possible to shoot 3D laser scans of a location in a single day. And that, says Chen, "will mean sequences will just get bigger and bigger."

Imageworks also broke ground on Robert Zemeckis' 2007 film Beowulf, which, at the time, was arguably the most ambitious effort ever attempted to feature human characters that had been fully created digitally — a challenge that's still considered the most difficult VFX experts face because, if even slightly off, the results can be creepy, stranding the viewer in a perceptual zone known as the "uncanny valley." "That uncanny valley is still there — it's so hard to overcome," admits Chen. "But I look at what we did in Beowulf, and there are moments where you really believe [actors such as Anthony Hopkins and Angelina Jolie] are there."

Siggraph will showcase the latest advancements, including digital doubles that were called upon to perform some of the aerial acrobatics in the newest Spider-Man movie. Theo Bialek, Imageworks' VFX supervisor, says this time around the focus was on their evolving body language.

"The first few movies were about the iconic poses from the comics; this one they wanted to be more gritty and keyed into Tom Holland's performance. They started with extensive motion capture with Tom and with a stunt double," explains Bialek, adding that the motion-capture data was used for less than half of the work — the rest was animated by the VFX artists. "A lot of what you can't really capture [with motion capture] is, for instance, the weight distribution."

Imageworks president Randy Lake notes that in recent years the use of digital doubles has become more prevalent — even close up. "Some good actors can't tell if they are looking at themselves," he says. "We had that experience with Tom Holland. It's not just background characters anymore; it's full-frame digital doubles."


The conference's lineup reflects the medium's variety.

Floyd Norman 
The first African-American animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios delivers a keynote speech on July 31.

Mandy Walker
The Hidden Figures cinematographer participates in an AMPAS panel on the movie on July 30.

Tiny the Giraffe
The newborn appears at an animal sketching course organized by Otis College of Art and Design on Aug. 1 and 2. 

This story first appeared in the July 19 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.