Venom, the latest movie where a mumbling Tom Hardy makes it hard for you to understand a word of what he's saying, broke the box office record for October on its first weekend and kept the top slot on its second weekend.
I'm not ashamed to say I actually enjoyed the movie quite a bit. Especially that motorcycle chase in San Francisco that I was convinced was shot on location. Turns out I was wrong, at least partially, and that I can't really recognize the city where I work.
I talked about this and other behind-the-scenes moviemaking magic with Paul J. Franklin, Venom's visual effects supervisor. The two-time Oscar winner (Interstellar, Inception) and regular Christopher Nolan collaborator also worked as a VFX consultant for another fall 2018 release, First Man.
Q: Tell us about Venom's creation. How did you approach it?
Franklin: The creature has been extensively explored over the years by various artists since Venom first appeared back in the 1980s. There wasn't a great deal of consistency between one artist and the other. And even within an individual artist, you get this feeling the creature can change more or less from panel to panel. He's this sort of almost abstract character. When Venom is fully formed he's got normally a humanoid shape, but the shapes that his face adopts -- particularly that very mobile jaw, those huge teeth, the incredible tongue -- it's very, very plastic, very expressive.
How complex was it to represent that?
Franklin: The fully formed Venom involved a lot of very precise body tracking. In addition to the movie camera that was filming Tom Hardy, we had witness cameras on the set: three or even four additional digital cameras. Typically they are Canon 5D Mark 4. We positioned them around the set, so that we could understand how Tom was actually moving in the space. The movie camera presents one view, and you're thinking, Was his leg a little bit further back or a little bit closer? Ordinarily, it doesn't matter too much. You can afford to be a little bit loose. But our body tracking had to be precise; we had to model the movement of his clothing so we could get the goo to stick into its surface. When we get the goo spreading up over Eddie's (Hardy's) face, which is lots and lots of complex animation, you know that it's perfectly registered to the cameras.
What about other physical references on the set?
Franklin: We did use a very tall stunt double. A chap called Kyle who was 6 feet 7. We gave him a helmet with a ball on top of that, which made him 8 feet. It was really useful when we were doing close-up interactions, like the scene where Venom appears inside the little corner shop and stops the bad guy stealing from Mrs. Chen. But when it came to Venom running down the street or climbing a building, particularly in the big fight at the end of the film, that's really about complex keyframe animation.
Of course we were also looking at Tom Hardy's physical performance. He's got this incredibly gestural style throughout this film. That was really good for the scenes in the apartment fight, where he starts shooting out the big tentacles. But when Venom fully appears, we are into the world of pure visual effects. We might use Tom's initial performance as a starting point, but then we are off into our own place. Venom's power, speed and size make him a very different proposition from a regular human being.
I guess it was also a balance from an aesthetic point of view...
Franklin: Ultimately this film exists in the real world. It's a live-action film. So Venom can't feel like a cartoon. But at the same, time we didn't shy away from some of the graphic stylings that the comic books use, because that is the nature of the character. You can't really avoid that. You have to respect that and embrace it.
There's a lot of comedy in Venom. Did that humor influence your work in the movie?
Franklin: Yes. The approach we took creating, for instance, the launch complex where the final fight happens is much more flamboyant and expressive than anything we did, say, on Interstellar or my colleagues on First Man were doing at re-creating the moon landings. Because it's a comic book movie, it needs to be broad, colorful and exciting. It needs to fit into that world. I would say Venom is a horror-comedy-action movie. When we were in preproduction, Ruben Fleischer, our director, referenced films like An American Werewolf in London. It's something which has got a real sense of visceral horror to it. And at the same time it was a pretty funny film and compelling piece of filmmaking. We are making a film which is for a different audience. We are making a PG-13 film so we can't go as extreme as An American Werewolf did, but there are some aspects of that in there.
San Francisco is a character in the movie. How much of the movie was actually shot here?
Franklin: Actually, the vast majority was filmed in Atlanta, Georgia. The bike chase is probably a good example of the technique we took there. Most of that bike chase was shot in Atlanta. We would take away the things which would make it overtly Atlanta. The art department made a great work dressing street signs to make them look like San Francisco and putting various things up that referred to the streets of San Francisco. Atlanta is home of CNN and Coca-Cola so there are lots of CNN logos and giant Coca-Cola signs everywhere. We spent quite a bit of time erasing those because American audiences would know this is not San Francisco. We did shoot key components of that chase in San Francisco, with Eddie jumping over the hills and going through well-known intersections. And then by mixing that up you're never quite sure when you are in Atlanta and when you are in San Francisco.
What about you as a viewer, can you distinguish reality from visual effects?
Franklin: It's getting harder and harder. Sometimes you are very aware of what's been done. Sometimes you are aware because no matter how seamless the work is, you know it's just not possible to shoot something. It would be too expensive or too dangerous. But I would say the sort of bread and butter of visual effects -- the techniques have become so sophisticated and so well established that you can do a lot of stuff that required a very complex bespoke pipeline maybe 10, 15 years ago. You can do it now with off-the-shelf tool sets. And that's also partly a function of the increasing power of computers.
What have you seen lately where you've particularly liked the visual effects?
Franklin: I'm always impressed by the level of work in the Marvel movies, just because of the sheer quantity of it. I took my kids to see a little while ago, and the scale of the work ... The ambition of the film is just astonishing. We take that very much as being commonplace these days.
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