HT Talks To: Sony Pictures Imageworks

These guys make the image work: peter nofz, jonathan cohen, and spencer cook.

The most popular movie of the year and breaker of just about every box-office record, Spider-Man 3 owes much of its success to its seamless, high-impact visual storytelling. Vast portions of this were rendered in the computers at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the digital production studio that helped bring life to all three arachno-adventures. On the occasion of the release of this latest chapter on DVD—and the entire trilogy in a magnificent Blu-ray set—Sony invited HT to speak with three of the very dedicated men of Imageworks. Digital effects supervisor Peter Nofz, special projects computer graphics supervisor Jonathan Cohen, and animation supervisor Spencer Cook are all gifted artists and masters of their individual technologies. Each has different responsibilities, yet is proud of his role within the elaborate team. And their work speaks for itself—even when you don't notice it.

Before he won an Oscar for the second film, apparently, John Dykstra set the bar high, wanting the best effects shot in Spider-Man to look like the worst effects shot in Spider-Man 2, by comparison. Was there any sort of mandate—spoken or unspoken—for the effects of Spider-Man 3?

SC: It's spoken and unspoken. All of us here at Imageworks, and everybody on Sam's side of the movie too, really want to push the limits of what's been done before. The great thing about making a series of movies like this is that we can learn from our mistakes—an opportunity to try to make things bigger and more spectacular, and more emotional, too.

PN: In this movie, everything seemed to be bigger. We always want to top ourselves. We all looked at the script, and we knew from the get-go what the challenges were.

JC: There was definitely a mandate from the studio that everything that we had done in Spider-Man 2 had to be done again but, you know, 50 percent better or 60 percent better, depending on what it was. So everything: from cloth—digital cloth—to the faces of the digital characters, there was a requirement that it needed to be a little bit better.

Visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk popped by to ask who left his Oscar (for Spider-Man 2) in the microwave.

Was the thinking that audience expectations would be higher for each film?

JC: I think that audiences are getting increasingly savvy to these things, and an effect that you could get away with five years ago you can't get away with anymore.

Either as a fan, or as an artist who has worked on the three films, do you have a shot or a sequence that you particularly like in any of the movies?

SC: I'm kind of partial to some of my own work, from Number One. [laughs] I'm very proud of, first of all, being able to animate on the first Spider-Man movie, and there's two shots that I did of the wall-crawling after Uncle Ben is killed where he climbs up the wall to chase the criminal. And also the sequence when he's dodging the [Green Goblin's] razor bats in slow motion.

PN: I think the subway sequence in the second movie is still high up there on my list. And I did like the final battle in this movie, that huge thing with the big Sandman.

You seldom see anything at quite that scale, and it's quite a long sequence, too.

PN: It is. And normally, what we do is we have a CG supervisor associated with every sequence, and we would look at this thing [and say], "OK: We have to split this up. There is no single supervisor able to handle the entire sequence." So, we had pretty much all of our CG supervisors attack it.

JC: I love the "Birth of Sandman" sequence. I think it's beautiful, the technology that went into it. It was a pretty Herculean effort that a lot of, lot of people worked on for two years really, just developing the technology. And then the artistry, the performance, the sound editing, you know. Everything came together on that.

SC: It's not easy. It's a long process of trying to come up with a body language and poses that will read the way we want them to read. It's just this one character for two or three minutes, and there's no dialogue, and it's like silent-movie acting. And this all stems from Sam Raimi, ultimately, and so it all goes through him, and he directs the animation very much like he directs the actors.

When you're working with such high-caliber actors, does it make your job that much easier or harder?

SC: It actually makes things easier because part of acting, you know, is body language and conveying emotion with facial expressions. We're sort of behind-the-scenes actors in a way. So that's a great question, and now that I'm thinking about it, when they give us a good performance, or they are really into the video reference that we're shooting that day, and they really give us a good performance there, there's so much we can pull from.

Are some actors confused by what you do? Do they bring different levels of enthusiasm to the work they need to do with you?

SC: Well, yeah, depending on the actor, there's different levels of understanding, and there's different levels of a desire to understand, you know? [laughter] Some really don't care what we do or how we do it.

I realize this is a barbed question: Are there any shots that you don't like?

PN: [grinning] Yeah, but I'd never admit to those.

SC: [chuckles] There's actually more shots like that than shots that I can just sit back and say, "That was perfect!" [chuckles again] Especially in retrospect, when you look back on it, there's always things that you can pick out of it and wish that maybe you had done a little differently or that you had spent a little bit more time on.

JC: Yeah, really! I was actually surprised, as someone who's behind the scenes, you see everything that you did wrong. And then you go to the theater and see the whole movie cut together and you're like, "You know, that actually holds together really fantastic," and all those little things that bothered me don't really affect the story or the movie at all.

Spider-Man 3

Is it tough that you do all this work, and people don't think about it, consciously?

JC: I wouldn't say it's tough. I mean, it's very hard for me to explain to someone at a party what I do, 'cause it's so far from the experience that a moviegoer has. I'm behind the scenes of the people who are behind the scenes!

Traditionally, you guys have all toiled in secrecy, but now DVD and Blu-ray specifically bring you so much attention. What's been your reaction to all that?

SC: It's really interesting. When I was growing up and watching Ray Harryhausen's * films, and every monster movie and every visual-effects movie that I could find, there wasn't a lot of information about this stuff.

PN: It's very rewarding. It's fun to be able to kind of show what goes on behind the curtain. It's also great to see that stuff on every DVD because we look at pretty much all of them and it's like, "Oh, OK, so that's what those guys did!"

JC: No, it's great. My role, where I start, is like writing equations on a whiteboard or something, which is so far from the end product that it is nice that there's some more attention on [my] little bit of the process.

SC: In a way, I sometimes wish there wasn't as much talk, especially in movie ads, like, "The greatest visual effects of the year!" and stuff like that, because the movie should just kind of flow. What we really want is people to just feel like Peter Parker is in danger, and that Spider-Man is about to get killed. It's kind of a double-edged sword in a way.

Surprise guest Sam Raimi exclaims, "Well done. Now get back to work."

What would you say is the biggest challenge of creating digital effects that look real and not like, well, digital effects?

JC: To some extent, it's not about creating reality, because if it were reality, then we'd just do it for real, you know? If you think of the real things—like cinematography, photography, practical effects, stunts—all that's about trying to go a little bit beyond reality. And so I think, in the digital world, it's really the same thing. If we match reality exactly, it's actually kind of boring.

So it's a question of making it look organic and believable but, at the same time, not mundane.

JC: We need the tools that can simulate reality, but that's not enough. It has to have some sort of plausible basis in reality, but at the same time, you go to the movies to see something incredible. And that's where all the artistry comes in.

SC: There's layers and layers of effects that go into doing that. And there's many different departments and different people who lend their skills and their eye to achieving that. I can speak most intelligently about character animation, and that really involves being able to see clearly, you know? The challenge of character animation, too, is that everybody in the world that is watching this movie is an expert in human and animal motion because that's what we see every single day.

PN: I don't think that there is one single thing that you can do. We extensively study what real photography looks like. We find a building, and then we replicate that building to perfection. And we take lots of photographs, so once we have created that digital building, we can compare and say, "This looks exactly like the real one." Only once we've achieved that step do we start populating those buildings into our environment and start using it. And we do that pretty much with everything.

The Imageworks crew explains their craft to Chris Chiarella.

And the sheer quantity we're talking about now, I don't even know the number of effects shots—

SC: Nine hundred and something.

Oh dear God.

SC: Total, for the movie. And there were about 450-something character-animation shots.

Are we looking at 100-percent digital effects this time out? No models, or...?

PN: In the crane sequence, there were miniature shots for that. I think the philosophy has not changed. If there's something we can shoot, we shoot it. In this particular movie, we knew we had to do so many things in CG that we really tried to only do the things we absolutely needed to do.

SC: Most of character animation is not about technology anyway. It's really about the artist and the choices that the animators make in posing the character and the timing. I want to try to dispel a misconception that the computer does a lot of work for us, because it doesn't. The computer is just a tool. The skill and the eye. . . it really comes down to the artist.