Back in 2018, “Black Panther” cracked the best picture race and showed that the industry was ready to recognize the superhero movie. It also landed five other nominations and made Oscar history when Ruth E. Carter and Hannah Beachler won in their respective categories of costume design and production design.
This year, “Spider-Man: No Way Home,” which just swung back to the top of the box office is leading the conversation once again for all the reasons Owen Gleiberman mentioned here, showing why a superhero movie should be considered worthy of cracking the best picture race — especially as the number of nominees has expanded to 10 possible slots.
While “Spider-Man” didn’t land a SAG ensemble nomination, it has scored nominations with the Visual Effects Society and the Motion Picture of Sound Editors and the Cinema Audio Society. Additionally, it has all the elements of an emotional storyline grounded in reality with a team of artisans to help deliver that realism director Jon Watts sought.
Kelly Port, the film’s visual effects supervisor, is nominated for a Visual Effects Society award. He worked alongside director Watts, leading the way as VFX houses around the world including Digital Domain, Framestore and Imageworks brought back villains from previous Spider-Man movies. Alfred Molina’s Doc Ock, Willem Dafoe’s Green Goblin, Thomas Haden Church’s Sandman and Jamie Foxx’s Electro were among those returning. Port also had to craft VFX as Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange was called on to help make people forget Spider-man’s identity.
Watts stressed to Port and the creative heads that this film needed to be grounded in realism. Says Port, “Yes, there is all this crazy, fantastic stuff happening, but we wanted it to happen in a world where it felt like it was believable and you’re not getting pulled out of the movie.”
The spell-casting sequence, where Tom Holland’s Peter Parker pleads with wizard Doctor Strange to cast a spell that will make everyone forget his identity, took over a year and a half to come together. Port and the team worked on other sequences, but the key was getting the visual language of the spell as close to Cumberbatch’s reactions as possible. “We kept coming back to it because it was about making the visual elements clear and consistent.”
In all, Port delivered 2,500 VFX shots for the film, with realism at the heart of every shot no matter how big or small the sequence. Adds Port, “Jon wanted us to never do a shot where it couldn’t have been shot live-action.”
Enhancing that realism was Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, which he reflected in his lighting. For the high bridge sequence, Fiore oriented his set to match the sun direction of the actual location in New York.
“If we have to do it at the studio, it’s all about things that make it look as real as possible,” says Fiore. At Ned’s Grandmother’s house, Fiore lit the set with practical lighting and applied enhanced lighting on close-ups and effects. “It’s a somber mood until we are joined by unexpected company,” he says.
This outing for Spider-man carried far more emotional weight than previous movies. It was up to sound designers Tony Lamberti and Ken McGill to step back for those scenes that would tug at heartstrings. When Zendaya’s MJ falls, Andrew Garfield’s Spider-Man saves her. It’s an emotional moment for many reasons, harkening back to his character not being able to save Gwen (Emma Stone). Says Lamberti, “It was scored with a giant choir, but when Tom Rothman, head of the studio saw the playback, he told the room and everyone involved that we were selling ourselves short by not making it a real catch-your-breath moment.”
That comment led to Lamberti and the team stripping out the music. “We turned it into a sound design moment at the 11th hour,” Lamberti says. However, integral to making that emotion work was knowing where to have all the sound design happen. Lamberti adds, “Andrew catches her and they come to the ground. They have their little emotional moment, and then it’s back into music.”
Those weaving, bobbing and stripping back elements were integral to amplifying the realism Watts sought to achieve in his storytelling.
With the film’s costume design, Sanja Milkovic Hays had to build on years of tradition while honoring the love fans had for these characters and costumes. Hays says, “The sensibility was different. Fashion was different and the technology was different, so it was about partially updating those Spider-Man costumes and bringing them into 2021.”
Since the craft elements of the film are gaining recognition with the guilds, the below-the-line names involved say there’s no reason for the idea of “best picture” to not encompass all types of filmmaking and acknowledge “Spider-Man: No Way Home.”
Lamberti concludes the film has “no shortage of sequences and scenes that really tug at your heartstrings, whether it be the sadness that Peter experiences, or seeing Peter struggle with his own anger and rage. It’s all these narratives of the story that are really impactful, whether it’s a superhero movie or not.”
Adds Hays of the film’s best picture chances, “The typical Academy voter, in history has voted for movies that are more drama-based. They go for the acting because the largest branch in the Academy are actors. Every single element that can win best picture is in “Spider-Man: No Way Home;” It is the acting, it is the music, it is the story. There’s no reason that it shouldn’t be a part of the best picture conversation.”