The latest comic-book superhero to hit the big screen is Spider-Man, AKA Spidey, who spins his web and leaps across the New York skyline as only a human-sized, four-legged arachnid can do. Columbia Pictures has its eye on a franchise to rival Warner Bros.' tired Superman and Batman movie series, and the May 3 debut of Spider-Man is being promoted accordingly. The film apparently has the blessing of all those Internet-addicted Spidey fans, especially in its choice of director — Sam Raimi, who endeared himself to fantasy buffs with such wildly stylized cult items as The Evil Dead and Darkman.
But don't expect anything too flamboyantly cartoonish in Spider-Man. “Sam very much did not want a bizarre, unrealistic world,” says production designer Neil Spisak. “He wanted a real New York, real people, real emotions. It's a coming-of-age story, basically.” After all, protagonist Peter Parker (played by Tobey Maguire) is an ordinary teenager who pines for a girl named Mary Jane (Kirsten Dunst), and apprentices as a photographer for The Daily Bugle, when not tending to his alter-ego's duties. “He's a high school kid who's becoming a man,” Spisak says. “And along with that, he happens to have these few extra little powers.”
Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures International
As Spidey fans will know, Parker is bitten by a genetically altered spider while on a class science outing. Shortly thereafter, he notices a few odd developments, such as enormous strength, an ESP-like “spider sense,” and the ability to scale walls and jump across great distances. But like many teenagers, Peter must decide whether to act on his hormonal changes, and how. Will he be villain or hero? A personal tragedy helps set him on the right track, just in time to match wits and physical prowess with billionaire Norman Osborn (Willem Dafoe), who has his own alter ego — the mean Green Goblin.
Spisak, who designed Raimi's previous two films, For Love of the Game and The Gift, followed the director's lead in hitting the proper balance between reality and stylization. “Most important to him was not losing the human, emotional issues that Peter Parker had to deal with in coming to grips with these weird traits,” says the designer. “He wanted it real enough so that we could relate to these emotions, but with enough style so you could accept that these peculiar things were happening. You're starting with a guy who climbs up a wall, so right there you're in a kind of false reality. It was quite a process — months of, do we push this a little further? Do we bring it back?”
Keeping true to the comic book, which was created in 1962 for Marvel Comics by writer Stan Lee and artist Steve Ditko, was also a priority. “The story and ideas we were very true to,” says Spisak, “and Sam was adamant that we be true to the comic book in terms of broad visual strokes. The trick was to add the third dimension, to make the characters human and not comic book characters.”
The key case in point was the title character's costume. “Spider-Man is extremely recognizable, and we didn't want to screw around too much with how he looks,” says Spisak, who as part of the movie's overall design worked on developing the form-fitting red and blue outfit with costume designer James Acheson. In trying to make it real, the designer says, they approached it like an athletic costume. Most of the discussion centered on details, things like “how many webs are there, where do they cross on the face and how do they round the nose, how big are the eyes, what does the lens look like, what happens with the ears…the face is basically frozen, so you have assign the right degree of seriousness to the expression.” By the same token, the designer says many questions about Spider-Man's powers were pondered: “Can he jump across 10 buildings or only two? When he flies through the street, do the webs attach to the buildings, and how far can he go on them? Is the web elastic, or like a rope? If it's elastic, how far does it stretch and you still believe it?”
According to Spisak, the Green Goblin's Halloween-mask visage and muscular armor were even more difficult to make convincing in a 3D world, as was his hovering transport vehicle. “When you look at the Goblin gliders in the comic books, they don't look like they could actually function,” says the designer. “He's this wildly intelligent inventor of military ammunition and arms, and the glider comes out of actual research, supposedly. The trick was to come up with a vehicle that looked like it could work. You're taking this slightly unrealistic thing and trying to lend a realistic quality to it.”
When it came to designing the sets, Spisak was guided by the notion of a real world in which extraordinary things just happen to be taking place. Extensive location filming was done in New York, particularly on exteriors. The house in which orphaned Peter Parker grows up with his Uncle Ben and Aunt May (Cliff Robertson and Rosemary Harris) is a modest yet tidy structure in Forest Hills, Queens; Norman Osborn's swank apartment is situated in Tudor City; The Daily Bugle is identified as occupying the top floor of the Flatiron Building. Interiors for all these settings were done at Sony Studios in California, but they followed the outlines of their designated exteriors, often with a very New York contrast between old architecture and modern decoration. On The Daily Bugle set, for example, “we used the big rounded window shapes and heavy moldings that are part of the Flatiron as interior detail, while the furniture and computers and everything in it are modern.”
Because a significant part of the movie's action takes place on rooftops, cornices, and other upper reaches of the vertical city, Spisak had a number of building pieces constructed on stage. “I like the Beaux-Arts architecture in New York City, so the pieces I did tended to go towards that,” he says. “There are modern buildings thrown in, because I wanted it to be New York as it is now: an election of really incredible architecture,” he adds, coining a rather useful term. “But visually, Beaux-Arts worked great for what we were doing, because it's filled with huge-scaled figurative carvings, and some of the buildings are almost folly-like — they're almost unreal when you look at the real ones, which lent itself to the style we were going for. The scale is slightly exaggerated, so Spider-Man is this little dot jumping around the gargantuan detail of the rooftops of New York. A powerful dot, but a dot nonetheless.”
Photo: Zade Rosenthal/Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures International
Most impressive among these stage sets was an eight-story-high section of the Empire Grand Hotel, a Beaux-Arts invention of the designer's that on camera fits into the actual topography of Times Square. This is the set piece for a major sequence in the film involving Spider-Man, the Goblin and his glider, and a ritzy celebration on a building balcony. “Because the action had to happen in so many places, we built about two blocks of Times Square in a parking lot here in Los Angeles, and that was about three stories high,” says Spisak. “Then we built the 80'-high stage exterior, including the balcony, along with bits and pieces of that for little closeup things. John Dykstra [the movie's legendary visual effects artist] fashioned the rest of the building based on art department designs, and in wide shots incorporated the sets that were standing in the parking lot and onstage. Then we shot in the real Times Square, and he put the building into that environment.”
This cribbing together of techniques characterized much of the Spider-Man shoot. The numerous stunts, for instance, were each storyboarded and broken down to determine the best way to accomplish them. “How much you saw, whether Spider-Man was a real or CG actor, whether the background was a plate or composite — those decisions were made on a shot-to-shot basis,” Spisak says. The character's first climb is a typical combination of elements. “We shot the opening piece in a Los Angeles alley. We built the side of the building as a horizontal set, and he was suspended from a harness, so he could scamper across it without having to worry about his body weight. Once he was to the top of the building, then we were in Queens, and he was running across the roof. For his jumps, it went to a greenscreen, using New York plates. It was very complicated, matching where he starts and finishes, matching a real building to a set, matching the lighting. John Dykstra was very good at previsualization, which was critical to figuring it all out.”
Dykstra, who worked predominantly with Sony Imageworks on the film, used a technology called photogrammetry, or remote sensing, which can measure objects and distances photographically. “The most exciting way to shoot Spider-Man was to have the camera moving with him, and to do that, you had to either put a camera on a crane and swing it hundreds of feet on an arc, or do it as a visual effect,” says Spisak. For the latter, Dykstra selected photographs of different vantage points, and put them together in the computer as a moving camera angle. Thus, the camera could seem to seamlessly swing and sweep with Spider-Man from one point to another. But in one case, cranes were set up to actually swing the camera through a physical setting — though only the foreground, shot in Los Angeles, was made up of real buildings; in the background are New York plates. “Every shot and every angle was accomplished differently,” says the designer.
The movie also includes a sequence shot on Warner Bros.' New York backlot streets, and a couple of moments where scale models were used. In addition, there are two crucial laboratory settings: One is Osborn's subterranean testing center at his ultramodern Oscorp plant, which was shot on a soundstage. The other is a Columbia University biogenetics lab, which was shot under the vaulted ceiling of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. This is the scene of the fateful meeting between Peter Parker and his proto-Spidey.
Photo: Peter Iovino/Columbia Pictures/Sony Pictures Entertainment
“Jim Acheson had a really good idea,” says Spisak, “which is that the spider that bites him has some of the qualities of the Spider-Man costume. So we actually painted a teeny-tiny spider blue and red, with a little intricate design on the back of it. That was quite a trick — finding someone who can paint a spider is not easy. The prop man had his work cut out for him. So we used real spiders, and then — da-da-da! — John Dykstra to the rescue. He doctored up a few of the shots, and it works pretty well.”