By the time Marvel finally got around to using it Spider-Man: No Way Home‘s trio of Spider-Men to recreate the starring Spider-Man meme, the Spider-Man fandom had already taken matters into their own hands, turning Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock into the film’s breakout star through unintended comedy. Though the film’s earliest trailers were meant to confuse fans who weren’t yet aware of the multiversal intricacies that would confront Molina’s Doc Ock with Tom Holland’s Peter Parker, they also ended up unleashing a spate of jokes that would piss off Spider-Man’s now self-serious Rogue.
Given the amount of planning that went into Marvel’s tentpole features, one could have gotten the impression that everything about No way homeThe introduction of , from the instant jump to speculation about characters being cut from the trailers to the rise of Doc Ock’s memes, was part of Marvel’s grand plan. But as we recently spoke to Scott Gem, a VFX supervisor for Digital Domain, one of the production houses being worked on No way homehe explained that while the studio runs a tight ship held together by precise coordination, he and the rest of his team had very little idea of how the public would view and remix their work.
It came up in a few other conversations and I wanted to ask you. What are your experiences since working from home became the norm for many VFX professionals during the pandemic?
Scott Gem: It’s enabled that work-life balance that we don’t have…it’s not the easiest thing in this industry, you know? For me personally, I drove an hour and a half each way, so I’m in the car for three hours of my day. With this setup I can really wake up in the morning and sit down at 7am with a cup of coffee and go through emails in the morning. When the team steps in they already know what to do and I can start starting my kids’ mornings and it’s really changed a lot. I – I think it made things more efficient, and I don’t see how we can ever go back.
When you talk about leadership on a show, about 80 percent of your day is going from meeting to meeting, running around the building, and talking about these things. If you’re doing everything via Zoom, don’t traipse around trying to get to the different meeting rooms. While you’re in those Zoom meetings, you’re still working and not paying attention, but you don’t always have to contribute 100 percent of the time.
I understand that.
I can’t tell you how many times we’ve been in meetings with a lot of people where we’ve talked about things and things got done during the meeting. Before the meeting ends, the stuff is already done, and you’ve already looked at it and approved it, whereas people used to have to go back to their desks an hour later and then commit to it, and then wait for the next meeting to show you.
Was that your experience with No way home?
Partly yes. For me, part of what was cool about it was working on it No way home was the daily review process. Normally in the office we would go into the projection room and sit there and look at all the footage and talk about it and take notes. We usually sit in the front row of a dark room and you are there many hours a day. Artists kind of filtered in the background and their shots would appear and you would talk about them with the laser pointer on the screen. But that way you never really get a lot of time with people because there are so many people.
To the right.
with No way homewe probably had about 200 artists on the project and what I found really cool about working from home and having Zoom meetings like this is how we’re doing it right now. [gesturing towards the camera]
For example, when I’m talking to an artist about a recording, I’m not in the front row in a dark room and they’re in the back. I look at her and we talk about her work. I think that’s super cool. You can say what you want about the personal aspect of it and how it’s a creative environment and how being together helps you have that kind of back and forth. But I think there are other ways to do this and I think the pandemic has shown us that we do can do it from home.
What concepts of Doc Ock’s physicality were you dying to emphasize in the bridge fight scene that might not have been quite as technically feasible in 2004? Spiderman 2?
Our approach was to watch the old movies because we really wanted to pay homage to them. We wanted the arms’ personality to be expressed in a similar way, but also wanted to bring new technologies into the mix to give them more character. Because of the way movies like this are made, sometimes we had Alfred Molina on wires, and sometimes he was standing on a platform lifting him around. Most of the time it ended up being no more comfortable standing on that platform than just dangling. We almost always replaced him from the neck down because we had to replace all of his legs and his jacket because the long coat he’s wearing is draping over stuff or catching on things.
So we’ve been holding over his head most of the time, but then you have to talk about his weight, his movement and how you make it look like he’s not just floating. We put a lot of effort into grounding it in a bit of reality. So, he has four arms, but we had to make sure he wasn’t just standing on one of them all the time while also leaning way out and holding a car, you know? The shift in weight as he walked had to make sense to make it feel like he was a heavy piece of machine crawling around.
Talk to me about the internal logic you have developed for how Otto interacts with his tentacles and how they move and behave.
So, there are a few things that contribute to this. For one, her inner lights change color depending on who is in control. If you watch the old film you kind of get it, although the continuity might not have been as strong, but with this one we really wanted to pay attention to that. If the lights inside are red, it means his chip is fried and the arms’ AI is in 100 percent control. Under the bridge, when Spider-Man takes over with the nanotechnology, the lights turn blue because he’s controlling them now, sort of like a bluetooth connection. And later in the movie when the chip is fixed and Doc Ock is back in charge, they are white, which is a nod to the original Spiderman 2 when Otto folds his arms for the first time.
Something Kelly Port, the overall VFX supervisor, told us about from a conversation with Alfred on set No way home is that Alfred actually named the arms back then so he could give them a personality in his own head, you know. So the top two arms were Moe and Flo, and the bottom two arms were Larry and Harry. The idea we ran with is that Moe and Flo – the two upper arms – are more planning-oriented. They’re the ones who really communicate with Otto because they’re the smart ones. You can see those moments in the bridge fight where you notice they’re kind of looking around and maybe talking to him or planning with each other what to do.
Some of this can be seen with Otto when everyone is gathered in Happy’s apartment.
It’s a bit more subtle, but yeah, you kind of see the interaction between Moe and Flo and Doc Ock. The tentacles are paying attention, but they’re also looking, almost making eye contact with Doc Ock. Moe and Flo keep track of what’s going on in the room, but Larry and Harry – the boys at the bottom – are kind of straight down or on the floor keeping things balanced. Larry and Harry are more like the muscle and they carry out the plan. They usually show him around, and often when things are thrown or crushed, it’s Larry and Harry who do that type of work.
On a project like this, where there is so much blue screening, there are so many different moving parts that all have to somehow fit together to create a false reality. Does the potential for the meme factor even play into your creative process?
I wish I could say we’ve had time to really think about it a lot, but when you’re in there you have so little time and you’re just in this little box. Our main focus is to make this all look as real as possible. You have those blinders on and you’re trying to make it look real and as cool as possible. I think if you’re aware of anything, it’s just “that move doesn’t look good” or “he doesn’t feel real” or “this character wouldn’t do that”. But as far as thinking this far in advance of what memes might come out of it, we just don’t, really.
We can’t really see or think about the fan reaction until this thing comes out. It’s fun to watch people react to trailers and theorize about things because you’re in there, though. You do these scenes and you release these trailer pieces and sometimes they’re not done yet. Sometimes it won’t even be the same action shot that makes it into the final film. But you hear these theories about where Doc Ock got nanotechnology from. “What’s he doing with all that nanotechnology on his arms? He obviously picked it up from Tony Stark. He will make himself much stronger and it will be so cool! ” Meanwhile, we all sit there and go, ‘Well, Spider-Man is just taking control of his body.’