'Amazing Spider-Man 2': Spidey Villains' Looks Inspired by Science
In "The Amazing Spider-Man 2," when the villain Electro gets charged up, a swirl of colors reminiscent of the Orion nebula fills his inner form.
Credit: Sony Pictures.

The creators of the visual effects for the new film "The Amazing Spider-Man 2" took their cues from science when designing the look of the huge production.

Spiders have always been a core inspiration for Peter Parker's alter ego (played by Andrew Garfield), but for the new film, the visual-effects team needed to get even more creative. After all, there are multiple villains in this sequel to the "Spider-Man" series reboot: Electro, the Goblin and the aptly named Rhino, a "Transformers"-style cyborg.

"Science and reality are very important to us as the basis to start from when we design our visual effects," said senior visual-effects supervisor Jerome Chen. "Then, when we make departures, at least we are making an educated decision when doing something that is clearly not real," added Chen, whose work includes the first "Spider-Man" movie, "Beowulf" and "The Polar Express." 

For instance, for Spider-Man's acrobatic exploits, such as swinging from his web and landing at high velocities, an understanding of physics was essential. "Looking at the way that Spider-Man moves, we wanted to pay attention to physics, specifically gravity," Chen told Live Science. "We gave Spider-Man an exemption card in terms of reality in that he can sustain g-forces that would normally tear a person apart, such as being able to swing on one arm without having his shoulder dislocated. We give him that allowance — that he is able to hold his body together." [Fact or Fiction? The Plausibility of 10 Sci-Fi Concepts]

Spider-strong as he may be, the web slinger is still bound by Newtonian forces, or traditional physics. "He may be superhuman, and be able to lift things and sustain lots of damage, and is self-healing, but if he jumps off a building, he will eventually reach terminal velocity," which is the top speed a falling body reaches, Chen said. "So we wanted to make sure that his character obeyed that. Also, for any shifts in weight, or if he makes radical turns, we want to make sure that, at least visibly, it looks like his body is going through those kinds of forces."

But if Chen was obeying earthly rules for Spider-Man, Electro (Jamie Foxx) took him well off the planet — and into outer space.

"In the design process for Electro, we wanted to create a unique look, not just for his internal energy, but also for his effects," Chen said. Indeed, close-up images of Electro are otherworldly. Behind Foxx's translucent blue skin, spectacular forces of nature are clearly at work.

When Electro gets charged up, a swirl of colors reminiscent of the Orion nebula fills his inner form. "We looked toward space. We found some great imagery of nebulae and galaxies and gas and stars exploding," Chen said. "The colors and the texture in those photographs were a fantastic resource for us." The effects team also studied graphs of neurological networks within the human brain and electrical storms from orbit as seen from the space shuttle, to give Electro his electric look.

Electro's weapons received a similar treatment.

"Electro uses electrical or energy discharges as his mode of defense," Chen said. "So rather than just looking at traditional lightning bolts and things that might be very familiar to the audience, we wanted to introduce the notion that he can tap into energy sources that are outside the realm of Earth or of this dimension." [Electric Earth: Stunning Images of Lightning]

Chen and his team studied slow-motion videos of lightning, Tesla coils and other electrical discharges, frame by frame. Then, they recreated these natural events using 3D software and some creative license to augment the resulting images so they'd look far scarier, and more powerful, than they would in the real world. Electro's energy bolts even leave behind little sparkly bits of energy residue in the air, which make them look like cooling cinders and add depth to the effect.

Creation of the visual effects for the other bad guys, such as the Goblin (played by Dane DeHaan), took inspiration from totally different sources. The Goblin's glider, for example, is a craft that's articulated in two places to allow for more complex motions.

"We studied snowboarders," said David Shaub, who headed up character animation for the film. "I also give the new animators a class I call 'physics for animators.'" It's one way Shaub can make sure his team stays on track, and doesn't raise any red flags in the mind of the viewer. In other words, Shaub said, he wants to keep the visuals on "the knife edge of believability."

In fact, to understand how Electro might twist and move as he instantly teleports himself from one place to another, Shaub videotaped himself submerged in a swimming pool — without the benefit of scuba gear — to study the motions of his own body as it moved in relatively weightless slow motion. Many of the visual-effects sequences were entirely computer-generated imagery (CGI), with the real imagery relegated to the background and, sometimes, other actors. But the key to succeeding in CGI animation, especially when it's combined with real-world cinematography, is to observe and obey real-world rules.

The third and final villain is Rhino (played by Paul Giamatti), a Russian mobster who has command of a robotic combat suit created by the shady Oscorp Industries in the 1980s. Thirty years later, the battle suit now has a cobbled-together appearance, almost like a Transformer who's seen better times. But it still had to feel like a real-world object. "We wanted to adhere to the laws of physics. The suit needed to look and feel heavy," Shaub said.

Chen summarized their approach: "I always like to know, what does the real thing do? Then, if we change it, we know why we are doing it." In broad terms, despite the temptations and abilities of modern 3D software, the effects' artists mimicked natural forces. "Even though we are trying to make it fun, and energetic, we wanted to make sure that Spider-Man's moves feel believable, that they are still in the realm of acceptability," Chen noted.

"The Amazing Spider-Man 2" premieres Friday, May 2.

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