One of the reasons why “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” has become an Oscar contender and the most honored animated feature this season is because of its bold, innovative style. In bringing Miles Morales to the big screen, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller wanted to break the rules of animation by making a moving comic book.
The producers supplied the vision, assembling a trio of talented directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and co-screenwriter Rodney Rothman) and an impressive voice cast (led by Shameik Moore as Morales). But Lord and Miller relied on go-to production designer Justin Thompson to design the ambitious look.
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“As somebody obsessed with comics my whole life, I had seen films translated from comics and I always thought something got lost in the translation,” said Thompson. “So I thought it would be amazing to make a movie from Miles Morales’ point of view, living inside a comic book and staring out at me: those Ben-Day dots, those screen tones, those offsets, the line work.”
First, Thompson consulted with Danny Dimian, Sony’s VFX supervisor. And at the top of his wish list was removing motion blur. “Then I thought it would be cool to give me the ability to make it any color that I want,” Thompson said. “And then it would be cool if you could give me the ability to shift it as far as I want. And then it would be cool if you could actually make those key offsets shift with a character, depending on how fast a character is moving.”
This required Sony to invent a new visual language and break their pipeline in the process. “They wanted something they’d never seen before on screen and unique enough that they couldn’t tell how it was made,” said Dimian. “It affected every department and the motto became, ‘If it ain’t broke, break it.’” (These solutions are so unique that Sony has even applied for a series of patent applications.)
They looked at comics, illustrations, and 2D animation for inspiration, and borrowed a 2D trick by animating on 2s instead of 1s (12 frames per second and not 24) to remove the motion blur and get snappier poses.
But the in-between gaps in the poses ran counter to simulation-based animation (hair, cloth, effects), which relies on continuous motion in the computer. So they had to rethink simulation to help fill in the gaps. On the tech side, they wrote new software to attach the sims to the characters. A hand-drawn animation style was also applied to effects so explosions looked more like illustrations. Therefore, a library of 2D sparks was fed into the simulations.
But the biggest innovation involved Sony writing new software to allow ink-line drawing over the CG character model without being anchored to the model. “Then we had to write tools to create rigs out of those lines to be used by the animators,” Dimian said. “The geometry generated from those lines made it more immersive. For the lines that are not as expressive (on the hands or the chin over the neck), we wrote software for machine learning to automate that process for the rest of the drawings.”
Tools for making halftones and line hatching for shadowing were also assimilated from comic book printing. The end result successfully conveyed the impression of an artist’s hand overlaid on top of the animation. But the greatest cool factor for the animation team, aside from making Miles a new kind of teenage superhero of color, was creating such a diverse range of styles for the supporting Spidey characters.
“The visual challenge was how everyone was going to look,” said Joshua Beveridge, the animation director. “We didn’t want to emulate reality or look like a cartoon. We needed our own language for different animation styles, and different universes. We did two-dimensional shapes as opposed to puppets. It’s an outside in versus inside out process of thinking and that changed everything.”
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”
Sony Pictures Animation
Peter Parker (Jake Johnson) looked past his prime; the anime-inspired Peni Parker (Kamiko Glenn) was a CG/2D hybrid; Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) was a hand-drawn delight; Spider-Noir (Nicholas Cage) was a black-and-white throwback; and Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld) was free-spirited and balletic.
When it came to the trippy, action-packed finale, where everything gets ripped apart, the animators gave a shout out to both “2001: A Space Odyssey” and legendary Marvel illustrator Jack Kirby. “They all have a half-toning, dot, bubbles thing going on,” said Dimian. “So we were inspired by the Kirby Dots for the particle energy [black blobs and psychedelic lighting] in this ‘2001’ moment full of color and craziness.”