Spider-Man: Homecoming’s VFX lead unpacks the secrets of the Staten Island Ferry scene

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Spider-Man: Homecoming is a great little movie, thanks to its small focus and deeply personal stakes. Peter Parker is one of the greatest comic book characters ever created, because where heroes like Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne face huge conflicts, Peter’s a regular teenager with everyday problems, and he strains to be worthy of the title “superhero.”

Tom Holland’s take on the character in Homecoming exemplifies that struggle in a number of ways. He’s desperate to win Tony Stark’s approval. He’s looking for ways to save the day, even in the smallest ways possible. And he misses chances to hang out with his crush, Liz, because he’s too busy trying to stop small-time crooks. But the cracks in his budding superhero persona are clearest when he screws up. By the end of the film’s second act, he chases the Vulture (Michael Keaton) and his gang to the Staten Island Ferry to stop an illegal weapons sale. The fight initially looks like a win for the webslinger, but soon, things get out of hand. And because Peter is so overeager, he puts himself and everyone on the ferry in danger.

That ferry scene is one of the film’s biggest set pieces, not just as a show of Peter’s superpowers, but also of his fallibility. Assembling the sequence required a great deal of attention to detail, and Sony Pictures brought in VFX production company Digital Domain to make sure all the little moving parts sing. The company provided effects for such films as Titanic, Deadpool, and Furious 7, and its artists made sure that everything in the ferry scene, from the lighting, to the costume designs, to the weaponry, speaks to how far over his head Peter is. I recently spoke with Homecoming VFX supervisor Lou Pecora about how the ferry scene finally came together.

What was it like animating Spider-Man’s action in a way that felt real and grounded?

Well, that’s a great question, and the answer is that we didn’t really animate it! It’s mostly motion-captured Tom Holland. He was amazing. Where he didn’t do motion capturing, or first-unit work on his acting, he was doing many of his own crazy wire-work stunts. He’s a very acrobatic guy. He did so much of this stuff himself. Where we had to take over, where he’s like, “I can’t jump from the ground three levels up,” we had to keyframe that stuff, and that’s it.

The Vulture, Shocker, and their mooks are all in the scene doing their own work. What else did you have to be aware of?

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Michael Keaton was only the Vulture where he had takes. Other than that, [Vulture] was a digital guy. We built him based on the practical suit that [the production team] had built. They didn’t build the wings, they just built the independent jacket, the mask, and gloves, and pants, all that, and then just the little section of the wings that fit right on his back. And the rest of it, we made out of concept art and stuff like that. And, of course, it went through a few different iterations.

The thing got extraordinarily complicated because of the mechanical design, where you have these pieces moving across each other. A couple open up, and turbines keep spinning around, and we had to make it into something that could articulate realistically and believably, yet be nimble enough to be interesting, plus having the guy fly around.

I mean with everything in this movie, from the mechanical design of that suit to [the way] the camera moves, Jon Watts, the director, he’s very methodical, I think. He said, “If a real camera can’t do this thing, don’t do it.” So we were watching our scenes, lenses, all that stuff to make sure that camera moved in a way that a real camera could. Like, you can’t shove a camera through a tiny keyhole and have it zoom back out, spin around super fast.

So if a drone, or copter, or crane could do it, then we were free to do it. But if it’s unbelievable camera movement, he didn’t want it in there. He’s very focused on keeping the film and the details grounded in reality.

The way light works in the scene is interesting, particularly in the Chitauri weapon. What went into that?

They went through many different iterations. It starts out with something that’s been done before, right? So you look at the weapons that were used in The Avengers, for instance. The beams they had, what color, the intensity and the opacity, different characteristics like that.

That looked too unbelievable [for Homecoming], because the scale was off. So we had to zero in on it. And frankly, that was one of the last shots out the door, those wide shots of the energy weapon. It had to function first as a gun, as a blaster. It had to be a weapon that had an impact and a mass to it. Like, it knocks the chairs back, it blows the doors off the ferry when he shoots it. But it also had to become something that could slice like a hot knife through butter. So when the focusing crystal breaks off, that’s where it goes from one to the other. And it was very important to Marvel that this had to be Spider-Man’s fault.


Image: Sony Pictures

What kind of decisions went into making it clear it was his fault? Did you have to create an effect that made it clear that the overload is because of Spider-Man’s actions?

Yeah, we tried to. It’s hard to see that. But the sound effect, it’s like an engine winding up. So you get the idea that this thing is charging up. Remember the old [camera flash bulbs], where you’d hear it charging up, like the camera? It’s sort of like that, but on steroids. It hits the deck and the crystal breaks off. We went through iterations of that to make sure you can see that the crystal broke off the front of the gun. And now it’s sort of malfunctioning in a wild way, like a propane tank or something that had the nozzle broken off.

What kind of resources were involved in actually pulling that off?

Well, we had a couple hundred artists on at different times in the show, and others came on later, depending on the department. Our build [of the ferry] took about six weeks from the standing point until we actually had a usable model, and then we had to clean it all up. So we had a team of eight or nine modelers who were working on this and the Iron Man suit and the Vulture wings and everything else, too, just to build the models.

And then there’s textures and lighting and shading and everything that goes along with it. And that can be weird. I mean, you know from being there that [a Staten Island ferry boat] is orange. It’s just surreal in its saturation. It almost looks fake in real life. And when you look at it, it’s hard not to make it look small. So putting a lot of details on there. Because it’s not just one surface, right? It’s a bunch of sheet metal that’s all welded together. The weld bonds and the engine, not just a flat plane. It’s got bits to it, and marbling. It’s very hard to achieve that, and expensive in terms of what it does to the computers that need to render it. But it is worth it, because in the end, you get a sense of scale that you can only get by doing that kind of thing.

You’re also incorporating the New York skyline in the background. What went into making that setting convincing?

There were aerial units that took photography from helicopters, but that stuff was up a little bit too high. So we actually took a boat out. We had a giant crane on a tug, and we had intended to shoot several heights in order to build environment spheres. Because the whole thing takes place from the Battery Park Terminal to the halfway point between right where Governor’s Island and the Statue of Liberty are, right?

So it can only go that far, this whole ride. So we had to keep track, time-wise, of where [our boat is] on this journey, and so we had photographs of skylines from different altitudes and different distances from Battery Park in order to hand off from one environment bubble to the next. So, “Now close to Battery Park. Now we’re a third of the way. Now we’re half the way from the Statue of Liberty. Now we’re at the Statue of Liberty.” We shot a bunch of still photography and moving footage. Then we did a lot of CG water to augment the real water we put in there.

The crane we took on the boat [early on in the shooting] was somewhat terrifying. We were out to sea and tried to use it, [but] it was deemed “unfit,” and we couldn’t use it. And so we locked it back down and we had to resort to carrying the camera gear up onto this boat in order to get some tiles of the area, and then take it back down to the deck in order to get the tiles for when you’re in the car deck.

So we got different altitudes that would look more realistic, depending on if you’re in the air with the Vulture, or if you’re on the car deck with Spider-Man. It has that feel like you’re the right altitude. And you’re close enough to that skyline. To Jersey and to Brooklyn. So we tried to make it as accurate as possible.

How did you plan out the sequence where Peter is trying to use his webbing to keep the boat together?

It was very important, story-wise. There’s a bit there where [Peter’s spider-suit] tells him, “Congratulations, Peter, you were 98 percent successful.” And then you see there is this one rail he missed, and it was important that he missed it. This is the kind of detail that Jon and the Marvel creatives get into, and this is one of the reasons they’re absolutely a pleasure to work with. I love thought processes like this.

If he had hit all the marks, then the suit would’ve been what messed up. But because Peter missed the rail, that’s what caused the thing to fall apart. [In one rejected version of the sequence] he had hit the rail. It’s still in the movie — a quick shot of a piece of railing flying by the camera. The idea was that he’d get ’em all, but then it broke. We had a piece of the railing that was dangling. And the creators at Marvel were like, “No, no, it can’t be that, because otherwise the suit screwed up, and didn’t accurately calculate the weight load that that railing would’ve had in order to hold it together.”

So we had to make sure that he missed it. We had to go back and redo that, and get rid of that railing and the dangling piece to show that no, he just missed it. So it still is his fault and not Tony’s fault, or the suit’s fault, or anything like that. I love it. I mean, it’s a pain to go back and redo stuff, but you have to do it with a smile on your face.

And that’s the thing about this project — everybody, top to bottom, these guys, if it’s a good idea, they don’t care who comes up with it. If it makes the movie better, it’s going in. It’s all about making the best movie they can make. Does it cost more? Fine. Is it worth it? Yes, we’re gonna do it. And they’re just so focused on making a good movie. I felt so free.

Were there specific instances where your team had an idea and the creators just went with it?

Jon had this idea, “Hey, get Spider-Man out there, off the deck and over the water.” When he webs the Vulture, he goes up in the air and comes back. We needed to figure out how we were gonna frame it, and what lenses to use, and how close to the water we can get. “What’s this gonna look like when he lands?” All that kind of stuff. The direction was pretty simple, just, “Do it out over the water.” [We tried it, and Jon] liked some bits, he didn’t like other bits, and so we went back and forth. But that was an example where we were able to go nuts and have fun with it. We came up with that framing, and the cadence of it. It was a big break to get that kind of freedom, instead of, “Oh, I’ll have my art department sort something out and get it to you.”

So that’s an example of the kind of organic filmmaking these guys do. Bryan Singer’s very much like, “Shoot the [pre-visualization]. Exit the pre-vis. That’s what I want.” These guys are a lot more organic. They’ll just keep working on it. And it’s fearless to do it that way. It’s a little harrowing, you know? You feel like you’re flying without a net, because you’re running out of time, and these great ideas keep coming. You’re like, “God, this is a great idea, but I wish you thought of that three months ago!” But it’s like, “You got a good idea, we gotta do it!”


Image: Sony Pictures

Who besides Bryan Singer have you worked with to create a scene like this?

Oh jeez. The Transformers movies with Michael Bay, and Flags of our Fathers with Clint Eastwood. I lose track of some of them myself. They’re all great, and they’re all bright. They all have their own unique spins on things, and that’s one of the things I really love about this job. I didn’t know much about the Staten Island Ferry. I hadn’t been to New York since I was a kid, so I got to go spend [some time] in New York. I love New York. It’s such a blast.

I’d love to go back again and do another movie there, you know? In this movie, I learned a bunch of things, and then other movies, you learn a lot of other things. The different people, the different types of personalities. Everybody has their own little way they work, and the little things to make them tick, and one of the finest parts of this job is getting to know that.

I’m a real people person, so I really study people, and I kind of figure out how to talk them on a level where I can get across my point and can understand their point. With Michael Bay, you get an idea of what he’s saying pretty quickly. Jon is very articulate in his words. He’s very methodical and slow in the way he explains things.

So it’s really fun for me to have to change the way I approach the directors and filmmakers in order to give them what they want. And ultimately, that’s what we’re doing. We’re helping to make their movie. It’s really fun to help translate their ideas into something I can explain to my team of artists, and then bring that back to them. I’m sort of a glorified translator. It’s a lot of fun.

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