Scampering up the side of a skyscraper and across its roof-top, Spider-Man leaps into the air. Tethered by a thin strand of webbing, he swings from building to building through the canyons of Manhattan.
Yes, the web-slinging crime fighter is once again coming to the big screen, in July this time in The Amazing Spider-Man. A much-anticipated reboot of the Spider-Man series, the movie was shot in 3-D and features two rising young stars--Andrew Garfield in the role of Peter Parker and Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy.
As fans marvel at the movie's astonishing effects, what most of them won't realize is that there's a real superhero behind the scenes, and it isn't Spider-Man. It's Spydercam. It regularly saves the day by helping movie directors get action shots beyond their wildest dreams, swinging from one dangerous mission to another.
There's a good chance you've already seen Spydercam in action and weren't aware of it. Spydercam can take credit for an impressive list of blockbusters, including the three previous Spider-Man movies, John Carter, Cowboys & Aliens, Thor, Iron Man 2, Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, and several Mission: Impossible films.
In 2010, Spydercam briefly stepped out from behind the camera to accept an Academy Award for technical achievement. It's the highest honor the film industry bestows for making seemingly impossible movie shots possible.
GET A GRIP
So what is Spydercam--some kind of fancy camera? No. It's an aerial-rigging company, a group of about a dozen technicians, engineers, and computer programmers. Spinning their own webs, they string up movie cameras and propel them through the air for Hollywood productions.
"People are always saying, 'We need the Spydercam. How much is it?"' says Spydercam co-owner Todd "Hammer" Semmes, "and I'm always having to tell people, `Well, it's really not a thing.' We've got a 6,000-square-foot shop with gear in it, and we've got trucks. And when we have a job, we understand what the director wants to accomplish, and then we go out with whatever gear is going to achieve that on the set or in the field."
Ordinarily, the task of setting up the cameras and the lighting for a film production belongs to a person whose job title is grip. A grip is responsible for rigging up whatever equipment is necessary to put the camera where it needs to be for the shot the director wants. But when that shot is exceptionally challenging--when it exceeds the grip's skill set--that's when Spydercam swings into action. "We're kind of like SWAT; we step in for the advanced stuff," says Semmes. "We're always rigging in places where the standard camera gear won't work."
Spydercam has rigged shots in locations ranging from delicate to dangerous--at historic landmarks, above the New York Stock Exchange, across major highways, and in remote locations ranging from Mount Everest to the Australian outback, to name just a few. Spydercam recently finished filming parts of Life of Pi, a story about a boy lost at sea. "We were on a huge wave tank the size of a football field that generated 8-foot [2.4-meter] waves, with a very expensive 3-D camera," says Semmes. "That was a lot of pressure, having a million and a half dollars worth of camera gear suspended over the water all the time."
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
If you saw Spider-Man 3, then you surely remember the scene in which a construction crane demolishes a Manhattan office tower. Gwen Stacy (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) plunges toward the street far below, but she is deftly rescued at the last moment by the web-slinging hero (Tobey Maguire).
As crucial as strong webbing is for Spider-Man, it's no less important for Spydercam. Super-strong cables are what enable the Spydercam crew to safely fly not just heavy camera equipment but also everything else that directors have asked them to launch through the air--people, cars, boats, even a 1/16-scale jetliner.
The cable that Spydercam uses is made of an ultra high-tech liquid crystal polymer. A polymer is a material made of large molecules that are composed of many smaller, identical molecules, or monomers. Plastics are polymers. In ordinary polymers, the molecules are disorganized--think of cooked spaghetti. But a liquid crystal polymer has a highly ordered molecular structure--more like a bundle of uncooked spaghetti which--gives it unusual tensile strength. Tensile strength is the maximum tension, or stretching force, that a material can withstand before being pulled apart. A liquid crystal polymer cable that's only 1 centimeter (0.4 inches) thick can suspend a weight of up to 13,600 kilograms (29,980 pounds) without snapping.
"It doesn't stretch at all, it's light and easy to work with, and it feels like silk in your hands. But it's amazingly tough," says Semmes. "If you wrap that line around an aluminum post and move it back and forth, it will saw right through the post."
That same cable can also withstand temperatures of up to 480 degrees Celsius (900 degrees Fahrenheit). Why is heat resistance important? When a cable rubs against other things, friction occurs. Friction is a force that resists the sliding of one surface against another. It converts kinetic energy, the energy of motion, into thermal energy, or heat--enough heat in some cases to melt ordinary plastics.
Movie sets are sources of other types of extreme heat as well. "Filming the movie Stealth, there's a scene where a convoy of trucks explode," recalls Semmes. "That was a real explosion. We flew the camera through 700 liters [185 gallons] of ignited petrol."
To film the Gwen Stacy death plunge for Spider-Man 3, the camera needed to drop 180 meters (600 feet) straight downward from the top of a skyscraper. To accomplish that, the Spydercam crew attached a cable, with the camera attached, to a winch. A winch is a mechanical spool, akin to a fishing reel, that is used to release or wind up a length of rope or cable. The winches that Spydercam employs are turned by 30-horsepower servomotors--electric motors that spin with extreme precision. The winches are so precise that they can let out or take Up cable in increments as small as 2.5 micrometers (1 ten-thousandth of an inch).
Straight-line shots such as the death plunge are called Bullet rigs. They're the simplest type of flying shot because the camera moves in only one dimension. More complicated rigs can move the camera in two and three dimensions. For example, to get shots of Spider-Man swinging through Manhattan, Spydercam built a 2-D rig called a Falcon that was 850 meters (2,800 feet) long. The camera swooped in a curving are from a height of 210 meters (700 feet) in the air to just 1.2 meters (4 feet) off the ground.
An even more complex rig is the Talon. The camera is attached to three lines, each one controlled by a different winch positioned at a separate location, like an inverted tripod. Pulling or releasing cable from each winch allows the camera to move in any and all directions. "The Talon is really a mathematical wonder in how it can transport the camera around," says Semmes.
The shot that Semmes is personally proudest of is a Talon rig he did for Mission: Impossible III. The camera zooms in and circles Tom Cruise as he leaps down and across a series of rooftops before jumping to the ground and sprinting over a canal bridge. "To be able to follow him in real time was very difficult," says Semmes. "If he stumbled, we'd knock him into the water."
HOT DOGS AND HORSES
For every one of its rigs, Spydercam employs specially designed computer software that calculates exactly how much cable each winch must take in or let out to move the camera along a certain path. Once a path has been set, it can be repeated again and again at the touch of a button, allowing for as many takes as are needed to get the shot.
Computers don't just control the camera during filming; they also play a big role after filming. Most of the death-defying scenes that show Spider-Man flying through an urban landscape were filmed as plate shots--shots taken to photograph the background of a scene. Spider-Man wasn't there at all during the filming. He and any other characters were added later, in a stage of moviemaking known as postproduction. And, of course, the Spider-Man you see often isn't even a real person. He's an animated character, the product of computer-generated imagery (CGI).
Because so much can be done on computers nowadays, why go through the trouble of flying actual cameras? Semmes explains: "As fancy as postproduction computers are, they still can't replace a real shot moving in real time, with the motion blur, with the shadows, with every single hot dog in the hot dog stand in place. They can't paint all that in."
Although audiences mistake many of Spydercam's real shots for CGI, the reverse is also true. Many movie elements that people assume are real are actually CGI. "When you watch War Horse and that horse is jumping around back and forth and falling down inside the trenches, that was all computer, graphics," says Semmes. "There was no horse there at all."
Despite the growth of CGI, Semmes is confident that he and his Spydercam crew will continue to fly cameras in the years to come, innovating as they go. "Each year, we get a little better, we do it a little tougher. And every year, the people who use us, they want us to go faster, go bigger. They always want to do something crazier."