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The Globe and Mail

Jerome Chen talks visual effects in Spider-Man 2 flick

The Amazing Spider-Man 2 hits theatres this weekend – with Spidey/Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) graduating from high school, and on to new bad-guy rivals. They include the villain Electro, so you can imagine what kind of high-voltage effects to expect from this 3-D CGI extravaganza, which also includes, among other things, web-slinging acrobatics, vehicles tossed into the air, and a nightmare-inducing electric-eel scene.

Much of the effects work was done at Sony Pictures Imageworks' Vancouver studio.

The Globe and Mail spoke with visual effects supervisor Jerome Chen at the Los Angeles airport, on his way to Vancouver for opening day on Friday.

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(Note there are minor spoilers in this interview.)

What kind of labour force and timeline were required to create the visual effects for this film?

We had roughly 13, 14 months to develop all the technology and the [post-production] pipeline and then to actually do the work. We came off the last Spider-Man with one set of expectations and after reading the script for this version, we realized it was probably three to four times more complicated. We had six companies working on it. The main anchor company was Sony Imageworks. They did anything that was centric to Spider-Man, Goblin, Rhino – any of those action sequences. Most of our staff at Imageworks, probably 70 to 80 per cent of it, was based either in Vancouver or in India. We have animators, compositors and digital lighters and modellers all working in Vancouver and then the centralized supervisors were in Culver City, some of them. There were other leads in Vancouver too. That was for Imageworks. We used MPC, Moving Picture Company, in Vancouver, for several sequences. The majority of their group was in Vancouver.

And you supervised from Culver City [in California]. How does that work?

We have a desktop-based work flow which means the artists, no matter where they are in the world, log into a super-charged version of Skype where they can hear my comments and actually see what I'm looking at. If I draw on the screen, they're able to look at that where they are. Since we're an internationally based company, we've developed a work flow that allows the user to be wherever they are and receive creative comments and get orders for how to march forward.

Why the Vancouver presence for the studio? Is it simply the economics of the tax credits?

Even though we use a lot of computers, we rely on the artists' abilities, and there's a very large talent pool in Vancouver now for the visual-effects industry.

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What can you tell us about the visual effects challenges in creating Spider-Man 2?

The movie has several villains in it, and all the villains require heavy visual effects in order to accomplish the required look. So Electro, with his storm of electricity inside his skin, was a significant challenge. Rhino with his mechanized exoskeleton was also a heavy CG challenge. And more than that, all of the environments in which they fight Spider-Man need to be created in the computer since there's significant interaction and damage caused to these environments – which we did not want to do to the real locations. For instance, Times Square gets destroyed and at the end of the sequence Park Avenue gets damaged. We did that all digitally.

Was there something you're particularly proud of?

The clock tower sequence was very dynamic, even though it was claustrophobic in a sense – being a narrow chamber that was very tall and very dangerous. And yet it was a really emotional scene that required extensive use of visual effects to make it feel real and put the audience in the centre of the story. Much of that was done in the computer. Even to the degree that we used digital versions of some of the actors since the stunts were too dangerous for a human to do.

Audiences wouldn't be able to detect that. And that's the point, right? Is that frustrating at all as an artist?

No not at all; it's what we do. That is the point – to be invisible. We make sure we blend into the reality of the film and just make it a cinematic experience for the audience without them knowing that it's been an illusion. That's the beauty of movies. That's why we go to movies

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As the bar keeps getting set higher, what kind of pressure do you feel to constantly kick the effects up a notch? How do you deal with that?

You surround yourself with the most talented people and the most passionate people you can find and always think about what the movie needs, and never think of failure. And drink lots of Maalox or Pepto-Bismol.

This interview has been condensed and edited.

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