‘Spider-Man 3'
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SCENE STEALER: ‘Spider-Man 3'

‘Spider-Man 3'
By Ron Magid, Special to The Times

In “Spider-Man 3,” recently released on DVD, a close encounter with a particle accelerator supercharges the molecules of Flint Marko, transforming him into a demented dune called Sandman. Sony Pictures Imageworks put actor Thomas Haden Church through a similar process, combining his powerful performance with flowing sand via an unprecedented combination of hands-on character animation and particle simulation. Imageworks’ crew, under visual effects supervisor Scott Stokdyk, saved the toughest sequence for last: Sandman’s birth, when Marko’s disintegrated particles pull themselves into human form. To achieve that Oscar-worthy effect, the crew learned how to make virtual sand flow uphill. (Merie W. Wallace / Columbia Pictures)
Spider-Man 3
The biggest problem: Sand doesn’t naturally form complex human shapes. To achieve realistic motion, animation supervisor Spencer Cook worked with sculptor Kent Jones to block out key poses in three dimensions. “Sand has certain characteristics that we’re all familiar with,” Stokdyk says. “If it’s not wet, it just cascades down, creating mounds that have this 30-degree angle called the angle of repose. So when we put particle effects on top of our character animation, we had to relax the surface into those characteristic shapes.” (Imageworks)
Spider-Man 3
After hand-animating Sandman’s body, the trick was getting virtual sand particles to fill his silhouette, then move like a human shape made of sand. That meant sometimes the sand had to defy gravity, rising up rather than falling down. Imageworks’ artists put the digital particles through several different real-world behavior simulations -- often simultaneously. “A sand particle might go through a flowing simulation, then a target-driven simulation, then it might go to gravity, into a piling simulation and back into the flow simulation,” Stokdyk says. “It’s one problem to do this with a small number of particles, but to scale it up to millions of particles is something else. It was incredibly complex, and I still wonder how we got it all done.” (Imageworks)
Thomas Haden Church
Then director Sam Raimi distilled the sequence, which was originally composed of 22 quick cuts, into a single, haunting two-minute shot, an effects tour de force in which sand swirls, lunges, collapses and rises again as it desperately tries to recover its human form. “That was a long, slow shot, with nothing but computer-generated imagery to tell the story,” Stokdyk says. “We couldn’t fall back on actors in the scene or other crutches; it was all out there, which was a little scary. We weren’t just trying to recreate natural phenomenon. We were creating an emotional, character-driven piece that had to be grounded in reality and natural movement.” (Columbia Pictures)
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