We got the chance to chat with Theo Bialek, visual effects supervisor on Spider-Man: Homecoming, about how they put the spectacle in Spectacular Spider-Man.
*minor plot spoiler alert* – The interview below contains small spoilers for the third act of Spider-Man: Homecoming – don’t read on if you don’t want to know!
How did you start out in the VFX industry?
Theo Bialek: “I started out as a computer engineer student. At my school – Rochester Institute of Technology – there were a lot of students involved in graphical design, and industrial design. At the time there were starting to use more sophisticated programs for 3D design and things like that, and I happened to witness some of that and thought it looked really interesting. I changed my degree, because at the time they didn’t have an undergrad for computer animation because of how early it was in the field – it wasn’t really accessible. I eventually got an internship at a post-prod facility that did small CGI for commercials, and learnt how to use the software and the hardware at the time, which was hard to come by. It wasn’t really accessible, you couldn’t download it. I got my feet wet with that, and then put together a demo reel of glorified logos and other things that were achievable at the time, and sent it off to a lot of facilities which were mostly located in LA. I eventually landed a job; back then if you had experience using that kind of hardware and equipment you had a leg up. They were very interested in people with those skills. I just kind of lucked out – it was all very different back then.”
How did you come to work on Spider-Man: Homecoming?
TB: “I got a job at Sony Imageworks and worked my way up there. Basically, we got involved in an interview where Imageworks was interviewing with a production company to see if there was a good spot for us to help out on the film. It became a hybrid of Sony and Marvel. They were working on more of a Marvel script where they’d send the work off to multiple vendors, and we would be one of the multiple people working on the film. We ended up having that phone conversation and then coming back and wondering what we could do to show them we were really interested in working on this. We came up with a test that was based off taking Ferris Bueller footage and animating that, and having a CGI Spider-Man in there. We built this little test that basically showed them the story we created and our abilities with the CGI Spider-Man and it went from there; we won them over and they decided to cast us to do the third act.”
What is the privacy like when you’re working with big companies like Sony and Marvel?
TB: “Marvel has a very strict set of rules they want to adhere to. They don’t want to leak the story or ruin or spoil it. Disney is the same – all of those companies are. Marvel is particularly guarded of their IP, and we’ve gotten used to it. We have a lot of things in place; whether it’s a protected machine where you can’t access the internet from your workstation, or making sure you log your machine out or don’t leave the desk with the screen on, that kind of thing. Of course you’re not supposed to talk about the story and the characters with anyone else – that goes without saying.”
“Marvel is particularly guarded of their IP…”
Which parts of Spider-Man: Homecoming specifically did your company Imageworks work on?
TB: “We worked on the third act – so everything from the Vulture’s warehouse to the end of the film. The warehouse was where Peter confronts the Vulture, and his wingsuit crashes around and the building collapses. Then they go up and battle on the cloaked plane that flies out of Manhattan, and then we did the beach sequence as well. The third act in most of our films are very flexible, very malleable. That’s where a lot of changes late in the game come where you think ‘okay, maybe this isn’t going to work this particular way’. There’s a lot of room for things to change, and it’s definitely one of the most exciting parts of the film to work on.”
That warehouse scene that you mentioned – when it collapses, that scene is pulled straight from the comics, right?
TB: “It is. When they first shot it, obviously then knew he was going to be buried in the rubble, but later on they really wanted to leverage off that iconic pose – I suppose it’s like an Atlas pose, where he’s lifting the rubble over his head. They went back and did reshoots and captured live-action footage of Tom Holland actually lifting up a prop that they created for that scene. We did all the extension stuff outside of that. As far as our involvement goes – we were there for the original shoot and then for the reshoots, and helped to devise how to construct some of that, but in general they had a pretty clear idea of what they wanted it to look like, and what they wanted to create, specifically in paying homage to that particular episode.”
“…they really wanted to leverage off that iconic pose…”
Did you work on any of Spider-Man’s suit at all?
TB: “For us, it was the home-made suit – the sort of sweatpants one with the hoodie. They had a practical suit that they did a lot of the scenes with the stuntmen in, but for us – of the 300+ shots that we did, 115 or so were all CG Spider-Man.
Finally, did you have to do any facial scanning or mo-cap of Tom Holland to get the suit to fit perfectly?
TB: “Oh yeah, for sure – both of his suits required a full scan. Even though the sweatpants one is baggy, it does scratch and reveal his body in places, and we wanted to make sure that his arms and muscles and everything else were accurately represented by matching it up to Tom. We scanned him, and did multiple different photographic references, and also used the Medusa facial capture system. All of the other teams just kind of leveraged off that. We even built a full CGI version of Tom with his face as well, because there are sequences – the beach battle especially – where his mask is off and you can see his face and his hair spiked up.”