|"Spider-Man 3 ” (2007) (animation supervisor)||“Spider-Man” (2002) (lead character animator)|
|“Spider-Man 3”: The IMAX Experience (USA: IMAX version)||“Hollow Man” (2000) (lead character animator)|
|“Cursed” (2005) (animation supervisor: SPI)||"Roughnecks: The Starship Troopers Chronicles" (1999) TV Series (animation supervisor: flat earth productions)|
|"Spider-Man 2" (2004) Character Animator (Lead CG Character Animation)||“Blade” (1998) (match mover)|
|“The Forgotten” (2004) (visual effects)||"Tightrope ” (1998) (character animator)|
|“The Matrix Revolutions” (2003) (animation supervisor: SPI)||"Pee Wee's Playhouse" (1986) TV Series (stop motion animator)|
|“The Matrix Revolutions”: The IMAX Experience (USA: IMAX version||“Big Time” Peter Gabriel (1986) music video (designer and animator of imagery)|
|“The Matrix Reloaded” (2003) (animation supervisor: SPI)|
|“The Matrix Reloaded”: The IMAX Experience|
Spencer Cook is one of the most talented and sought after animators in the movie industry today. His work in motion pictures (some of which have set box office records) has helped bring to life several of the worlds’ most famous super heroes and super villains. And, if that’s not cool enough … he gets to work with some of the top actors and actresses in the business and…he gets paid to do what he loves to do!
Spencer took some time out of his busy schedule to talk with The Entertainment Nexus about some of his past projects, how special effects have changed through the years and what it takes to make Spider-Man…forever swinging in our hearts.
The Entertainment Nexus- What have you been up to lately?
Spencer Cook- Well, we took a little time off after we finished “Spidey 3.” (Laughs)
TEN- You have been nominated for several Academy Awards in your career.
SC- Not me personally…some of the shows that I’ve worked on…have been. I wasn’t at that level where I would have been nominated.
TEN- What about the category for “Best Special Effects” for the “Spider-Man” and “Hollow Man” movies?
SC- Yeah… “Hollow Man” was nominated…“Spider-Man” was nominated and “Spider-Man 2” won an Academy Award but I was a “Lead Animator” on those projects and “Lead Animators” don’t collect Academy Awards. (Laughs) I personally wasn’t up for an award…but those projects were.
TEN- Can you give me a run down of the movies that you’ve worked on?
SC- Yeah… “Hollow Man”… “Spider-Man”… “Spider-Man 2”… “Spider-Man 3”… a werewolf movie called “Cursed” that I think nobody saw (laughs) “Matrix Reloaded”…“Matrix Revolutions” and the first “Blade” movie. I think that covers it.
TEN- Did you work on any other projects or just movies?
SC- Well before all that…I was a “stop motion animator” before I got into “digital animation.” I was doing stop motion for many, many years. When I was a kid I was totally into Ray Harryhausen films. He was the famous stop motion animator that did “The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad” and “Jason and the Argonauts”… “Clash of the Titans” some really great stuff. I was totally into “Monster Movies” and stuff like that so I always wanted to be a stop motion animator. I went to film school in New York and made a stop motion film there, then…I started working in commercials and T.V. shows as a stop motion animator for over ten years. I did tons and tons of commercials like; “The Pillsbury Doughboy” and some of the early “Bud Bowl” commercial for Budweiser that they would show during the Super Bowl.
I did the first season of “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” and tons of other short commercials. Then, I moved to Europe for a couple of years. The business was sort of transitioning. After “Jurassic Park” came out, that kinda changed everything in the animation world.
So, stop motion was not being done as much and I was trying to figure out what I should do. I knew I wanted to keep animating but I didn’t really know computers all that well.
After living in Europe, I wanted to come back to the states and work on “features.” I came back to Los Angeles and applied to some companies and started doin’ some smaller projects here and there and started getting used to animating with a computer instead of stop motion puppets. Then it kind of built from there. Then, Sony hired me to work on “Hollow Man” then that segued into “Spider-Man” then all the other projects after that.
TEN- You just answered my next four questions! (Laughs)
TEN- What’s the process that from the time Sony comes to you and says; “Spencer, we want you to do Spider-Man” to when it’s on the movie screen and people like me watch it?
SC- Well the first thing we do on a project is we start doing animation tests. Like Spiderman for example, on the first movie the big question on that was “How much of a digital character and how much animation could we actually do and make it look realistic and also make it integrate with the live action and the stunts?” The first thing we did was we took the “Hollow Man” model and modified that a little bit with some “Spider-Man” textures on it. Then we started animating the tests. We did a “swinging test.” I animated a “wall crawling test.” We just used them a proof of concept kinda thing like; “Yeah we can get this close to a digital model and animate this and it’ll cut into the movie.” On that particular project we were trying to figure out what kind of body language and motions should Spider-Man have in a “Live action” movie?
There’s a whole fantastic history of Spider-Man in the comics. He has very specific poses and there’s a very sort of specific language the Spider-Man has in the way he moves and poses. One of the first things we did was to figure out was; “Can we hit those poses and still make it look real?” It’s one thing to have something drawn as a cartoon or as a comic. It’s another thing to try to make that look like a real person doing it.
We figured out early on that we had to be careful with using some of the “Extreme” Spidey poses…some of the iconic Spidey poses because it looked too much like he was showing off with those poses. In particular, the first movie…when it was his origin story…he’s not supposed to be all that adept at doing these kinds of gymnastics type maneuvers. What we ended up doing was he would hit those poses but we would not have him hold in any of them. We would have him just move through them kinda quickly. Then towards the end of the movie…the final shot of the movie when he’s doing that big long swing through the city and up to the flag pole…that’s when we pulled out all the stops. That’s the moment when he became “The Spider-Man” that everyone is familiar with.
TEN- I admire you and the things that you’ve done! They’re really cool!
TEN-Are some of the things that you’re asked to do more difficult than others?
SC- Oh yeah…yeah…there’s a whole range of tasks that are involved. The hardest thing to do is the really long shots. There are a lot of shots in Spider-Man movies and visual effects movies in general that go on for many, many frames. The audience can get a really good look at what the character is doing. Those can be some of the more difficult shots because you can’t really cheat any. You can’t cut away or hide things as well. Some of the easier stuff are of course are shots that are shorter. One thing we did more in number three than we ever did on number one was to see Peter Parkers’ face more and see the faces of the other characters more…even when they were the animated characters. That can be really tough too because everybody in the world is familiar with how people move. Everybody has seen acrobats and gymnasts.
Everybody knows inherently how a person should move and what looks realistic and what doesn’t. When you put a persons’ face on that, it raises the bar even higher in terms of trying to sell what is basically…a synthetic person and trying to make it seem like a real person. Some of the toughest stuff I’ve ever done personally was in number three and it was to animate a character that had a real persons’ face on it.
TEN- Now were the faces computer generated too or did you “super impose” them onto the bodies?
SC- It’s a mix. In number three it’s a real mix. That was one of our philosophies from the beginning that kind of came from Scott Stokdyk who is the over-all visual supervisor. His philosophy with these kinds of movies is to try to mix the techniques as much as possible. Maybe the audience doesn’t know exactly how things are done but if you use the same technique over and over again…people can kinda get a handle on it. We tried to mix up the techniques…so we did both. We had digital scans of the actors and fully digital versions of their entire heads, bodies and faces. We used that in some shots then in other shots…we would animate the character and then shoot the actors with a real camera based on the animation. Then, we would composite that back over top of the animation so that we would get a mix of a “Live action” face on the animated character.
TEN- To sort of give it a more realistic look…
SC- Yeah…that was the goal. It’s a very touchy thing because there are very tight restrictions on how far you can push that before it doesn’t really look real. But yeah, that was the goal to try and get the actors’ real face in some shots where you get a really good look at it ya know…try to use their real face by putting it on an animated character because the actor or stuntman couldn’t do a move like that. That’s usually why a shot’s animated because you can’t really do it in real life.
TEN- It really looks great!
SC- Well good!
TEN- How often do you interact with the actors and actresses like Toby MaGuire and Kirsten Dunst?
SC- I had more interaction with them on this film than I did on the others because this was the first film where I was the “Animation Supervisor” on the project. On the other movies…I was the “Lead Animator” which is sort of the “Animation Supervisors’ right hand man” so to speak. But on number three, Anthony LaMolinara the previous animation supervisor, moved on to other projects so I was able to step into his shoes and be the “Animation Supervisor.” In that capacity, I was able to interact more with the actors and in particular Sam Rami…the director. We saw him pretty much every day. So, I was interacting with him on a daily basis. Then when they were shooting, I would sometimes be on set when they were doing the stuff that was specifically geared toward the visual effects and that would have animation added later. I would sometimes work with Sam and the actors on some specifics.
TEN- Do you get to hang out with them on a social level at all?
SC- No…nothing like that. (Laughs) It’s a whole different world that they’re in. They come in and do “their thing” and then they go back to their trailer. It’s not a social environment at all. The schedule is always ridiculous and there are always too many shots to do in the day. Everybody is pretty much focused on getting the work done and then going home.
TEN- What about your “off the clock time?” Ever go to dinner or anything like that?
SC- Nope nothing like that at all. They have other priorities…they don’t wanna hang out with an “Animation Supervisor” (laughs)…they have their other actor friends or whatever they do.
TEN- Yeah, but what you do makes them look good on screen.
SC- Well…yeah I guess. For me there wasn’t any social action with any of them.
TEN- Were there any projects that you were offered but turned down…that you latter regretted passing on?
SC- No I don’t think so.
TEN- Are there any movies that when you see them you think; “Man, that’s really cool.” You know, ones that somebody else animated it…something that you can appreciate somebody else’s work?
SC- Oh yeah! There’s tons of stuff that I see that’s really well done. There are a lot of projects that have come out that I’m very impressed with. Most recently…the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films have some great work in them. ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) does fantastic work. I’m really impressed with what they do. All of the stuff that comes out like; “Lord of the Rings”… “King Kong” things like that. Those are all beautifully done projects…really nice animation and visual effects.
TEN- Okay, here’s a question for you. There’s a video on YouTube of a Spencer Cook that eats a huge jug of cheese balls is that you?
SC-(Busts out laughing) NO! (Continues laughing)
TEN- It was made a while ago and there’s this huge, plastic jug of cheese balls that this guy starts eating and then the camera will cut away and then come back and his stomach is a little bit bigger. Then it cuts away and comes back and his stomach is still bigger and it keeps doing that back and forth.
SC- I’ve never heard of that…but it’s not me. (Still laughing) I can’t remember a time when I’ve eaten cheese balls either. I’ll have to look that up though…
TEN- I’ll send you the link. (Laughing)
TEN- Tell me something disturbing about yourself that you’ve never revealed before.
SC- Something disturbing that I’ve never revealed before. Wow…I don’t know how to answer that because if I haven’t revealed it before then I probably don’t wanna reveal it. (Laughs) It’s probably something that I don’t want people to know. I think there are plenty of disturbing things I could come up with but I don’t know if I want people to know about them. (Laughs) Something disturbing…. I don’t think I wanna answer that one. (Laughing)
TEN- Is there anything else that you want to add or say?
SC- No…I think we’ve pretty much covered it. This is the kind of work that I’ve always wanted to do. It was something that I’ve always been interested in as a kid. As far back as I can remember…I’ve never really wanted to do anything else. I was never really good at anything else so luckily it’s possible that I get paid for this. (Laughs)So…I feel very lucky in that way. I’m very happy that I can make a career out of what I enjoy doing.
For more information on Spencer Cook please visit http://www.sonypictures.com/imageworks/company/bios/scook.html
TEN would like to thank Nancy Neff for hooking me up with the interview.