(Source: dvd.ign.com) Late last month, Sony Imageworks invited a small group of journalists out for a day-long tour of their visual-effects facility in celebration of the release of Spider-Man 3 on Blu-ray. While the day was filled with demonstration after high-tech demonstration – illustrating the creation of Venom and the birth of Sandman – what struck us most was our brief exchanges with the Oscar-winning Imageworks team scattered throughout the day.

With the exception of the occasional DVD featurette, it’s rare that visual effects artists are offered a moment to shine. So as they described the process of designing Venom and creating particle-programs to control the animation of Sandman, we found ourselves asking question after question to this brilliant group of men who are ensconced firmly behind the scenes.

QUESTION: So what is the relationship between artist and director on a film of this scale?

IMAGEWORKS: One of the most amazing and, at the same time, difficult things about working on a Sam Raimi movie is that he’s constantly pushing us to improve upon ourselves – to actually advance the art of the computer graphics – but he does it in a way that’s not gratuitous, that serves the story he wants to tell. In the first Spider-Man, he wanted to tell the story of Peter Parker and take us on the journey through the streets of New York. And so we were called upon to create a digital New York, which had never been done before. On Spider-Man 2, we were tasked with bringing Doc Ock to life…and we were rewarded for our efforts with an Oscar…On Spider-Man 3, he pushed us even further to combine digital character performance with complicated effects work.

QUESTION: Obviously Raimi is particularly savvy about effects work. Is it more or less difficult to work with someone who isn’t as versed in the arena?

IMAGEWORKS: Every director is different. Every time, we have to develop or evolve a creative relationship. Sometimes it’d good to have a director who doesn’t know so much about it, and other times it’s good to have a director who knows a lot about it…The great thing about working with Sam for seven years is that we all knew the language from the first movie, so it got easier with the second and the third films.

QUESTION: For creatures like Sandman, how much of the actor’s reference do you use versus creating your own material?

IMAGEWORKS: The performances are a mix. Thomas [Hayden Church] was definitely involved and our goal in the most effects-heavy sequences was to make this feel like it’s the same character that the audience has seen throughout the rest of the movie. We try to get as much as we can of Thomas, but we also shoot a lot of stuff ourselves – as a reference – to help fill in some of those organic gaps that we may not have gotten the first time.

QUESTION: So when you get that reference, how much of the performance carries over?

IMAGEWORKS: Part of acting is conveying emotion with facial expressions. The performances that they’re giving a very human performances – and that’s what we want to convey with animation – but there’s a reason that we have to animate these characters. So we have to ask, “How much of the human performance do we incorporate into the fantastic element of the effect?” It’s a constant balance.

QUESTION: Do you ever have to fight the temptation of creating an effect that could otherwise be done practically?

IMAGEWORKS: Out general philosophy has always been – if you can shoot it, shoot it. If it’s possible to do something with practical effects, let’s do it. Only if there is no way that something could be done practically do we go into the digital world. Part of that is cost, but the other part of it is that we’re still battling photorealism on screen. The frivolous use of CG is not necessarily a good thing because what we’re trying to do is to tell a good story and suspend disbelief. Ultimately, we wanted everything to look as if it was filmed practically. But, in this case, there’s just so much stuff that sand can’t do that we wanted it to do!

QUESTION: Three films into the series, how much work still goes into the character of Spider-Man?

IMAGEWORKS: We’re always pushing the character. In the third film, I was very interested in advancing that as much as possible…There were two things we tried to introduce – the first of which was a ballistics tool, which allows us to check the real physics of an arc and gravity’s effect on the human body. We used that judiciously here and there because real physics and movie physics are not the same thing! But we want to make it look real – as if the character has actual mass and weight…In some cases, if you adhere too closely to real-world physics, it stops looking cinematic…

QUESTION: Are you happy to see the growing interest in effects work?

IMAGEWORKS: I think it’s interesting, in a way, because when I was growing up and watching Harryhausen films – or monster films, or big effects films – there wasn’t a lot of information available about this stuff, so it was a very specialized kind of thing. I think it’s great that general audiences are interested in the visual effects and animation in these movies, but on the other hand, I kind of wish that there was less of that…It’s great that it calls attention to our art, but what we really want is people to just feel as if Peter Parker is in danger and not really be thinking about the animation or the visual effects. So it’s kind of a double-edged sword.

QUESTION: Do you ever worry that every innovation brings us closer to having nothing left to innovate? That we’ll stop being amazed or surprised by what can be done on film?

IMAGEWORKS: I think that there are still a couple of landmarks left. Twenty years ago, sure, there was this huge, vast area. So it is, in a sense, getting smaller. But photorealism is still imperfect and we’re making progress to that. Making a fully CG movie that is completely photo-real – nobody has done that yet…But one day we’ll get to that only to discover something we’ve yet to imagine.

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