Forget great power and great responsibility: when it comes to swinging from web to web over the densely populated streets of Manhattan, Peter Parker and moviegoers alike are having great fun.
Indeed, if there’s one thing that “Amazing Spider-Man” nailed perfectly, it’s the art of web-slinging. The Andrew Garfield-starring Marvel reboot, in theaters now, features the greatest use of the wall-crawler’s webs in any movie to date, thanks to revolutionary ideas from the film’s stunt and visual effects teams — ideas that few people believed in at the outset of production.
“The process began with me very grandly saying, ‘I can do something special with the web-slinging, with high speed winches and real cables,’” stunt coordinator Andy Armstrong told MTV News about how the movie’s breathtaking web-slinging scenes came together. “The responses ranged from ‘Wow, that’s cool’ to ‘Yeah, sure, we’ve heard that before.’”
Armstrong wasn’t discouraged by his detractors. After studying the previous “Spider-Man” movies’ use of computer-generated graphics in pushing Spidey through the New York City skies, Armstrong brought an Olympic gymnast into his studio and filmed him working on a high bar from multiple angles. Almost instantly, he realized why the Sam Raimi era’s web-slinging. never worked for him.
“I realized immediately it was a speed thing,” he said. “When you look at CG characters in the old ‘Spider-Man’ movies, his downward swing is the same as it is at the bottom, and going up again and going into the next swing. When I analyzed the gymnast, I saw that the downward motion is incredibly violent. We put a G-meter in his pocket and saw that he pulled three Gs at the bottom of the arc. And when he goes up, he slows and slows until he’s negative… and then he’d drop again into this very violent drop. That’s when the light bulb went off: it’s purely gravity and speed, which sounds ridiculously obvious now — but no one had done it until then.”
Armstrong’s research fueled his desire to revolutionize Spider-Man’s web-slinging on a practical level. He and his team constructed “a track being pulled by a high-speed winch” to help emulate Spidey’s web-swinging ways. “But rather than being constantly moved along, the stuntman was on the end of a line. It was a little like cracking a whip,” he explained. “He would drop into the bottom of the pendulum, and as he reached the bottom of his arc, someone driving the winch would pull a dolly along to the next spot. It was like cracking a whip with a man on the end of it. That’s how we moved him along.”
If that sounds nauseatingly frightening to you, you’re not alone. Armstrong admitted there were moments when his team, Garfield included, were acutely aware that the only thing standing between them and a sixty-foot death-drop was a line “no bigger than a bootlace” attached to the web-slinging rig.
“There were a couple of times where under that mask you know he was thinking, ‘Oh s—,’” he laughed. “You just hope that little bootlace behind you is attached and hope that the calculations are right!”
Of course, the web-slinging wasn’t entirely practical. Visual effects coordinator Jerome Chen and his team were greatly involved in the process as well, though even Chen admitted that Armstrong’s take on Spider-Man’s signature moves was inspirational.
“It’s amazing what Andy was able to do with those physical stunts,” said Chen. “He found a very interesting rhythm to the way Spider-Man swung. When he’s swinging and attached to something, he’s very fluid. But when he gets to the top of his arc, he has to very quickly shoot and grab another web. So I noticed this interesting pattern of smooth, then a quick staccato of smooth movements, and back to smooth again. That was very interesting. That physicality, I had our animators look at it. We studied it. We extrapolated from that. We decided you don’t have to be as staccato if you’re 70 stories up, because you have momentum. But that rhythm and fluidity was still there.”
Chen’s team also introduced the idea of web-slinging contact — in other words, allowing the viewer to see exactly what Spider-Man’s webs are actually latching onto.
“We wanted to see what Spidey is hitting with his web,” Chen said. “He’s not just shooting off into space. Did he hit the top of that crane? Do we feel that he’s connected to that structure? You’ll notice in most of the swinging shots, you know he either hit the landing rung of a helicopter, or he attached himself to a crane, or a microwave tower. That’s part of the physicality we wanted to get across.”
As for the webs themselves, the visual effects team did their fair share of research into real-life materials that might be similar to the fluid Peter develops in the film. “We looked at plastics,” he said. “The webs are not fishing lines, but they’re glass-like, and they have barbs and rough surfaces that catch light. But you can still see through them. So we looked at polymers, things that are manmade but organic.”
Beyond Chen, Armstrong and their respective teams, there was another person responsible for making the web-slinging so effective: the film’s aptly named director, Marc Webb.
“He has an incredible sense of rhythm and a mind for movement and timing,” said Chen. “His notes about animation — how Spidey moves, the poses he needs to strike — are among the clearest of anybody I’ve ever worked with. He knew exactly what he wanted. When something didn’t look real to him, he was always very clear why: it was always about weight and about gravity. If we came to a scene where Spidey moves realistically, but when you put it in the context of the scene, he’s moving too slow — [Webb] knew when to make those decisions.”
In the end, few can doubt the work that went into your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man’s high-flying act. But even Armstrong, doubted by producers at the outset of production, wasn’t always certain that his ideas for practical web-slinging would work — a fact that changed when he saw it all in action.
“There was a fantastic moment when I was riding down the back of the truck and watching [the rig] work, and over the sound of the engines, I could hear all of these paparazzi cameras going off,” remembered Armstrong. “I saw all of the pictures on the Internet the next day and they were all very cool pictures, because from every angle, [the web-slinging] looks real. And it is real. He’s traveling at thirty miles an hour over cars, pulling three Gs and moving alongside the side of a truck. It’s all real!”
He continued: “You get these moments every now and then in my business where you step outside of yourself and think, ‘That’s pretty damn cool.’ This was one of those moments.”
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