Behind the Scenes of the Spider-Verse
Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s critically acclaimed Spider-Man™: Into the Spider-Verse isn’t a movie about a comic book; it is a comic book. It may have required thousands of lines of codes and a completely new animation workflow, but its flat colors, cross-hatching, and mis-registered layers give the film the same tactile quality as the 1962 paper comic in which Spider-Man debuted.
Justin K. Thompson was a natural choice for the film’s production designer (the person responsible for translating the director’s vision into what the audience sees onscreen). “I learned to draw by looking at comic books and emulating them,” he says. “My first job was in a comic book store—not for money, because I was too young. They paid me in comics.”
As a life-long comics fan and an artist, Thompson can easily identify key elements of comics. “They have the screen tones and misprints and offsets, and they’re printed with CMYK. There is a texture to them. You really feel the artist’s hand. I thought, ‘We have to bring all of that into our animated film.’”
“We got rid of things like blur that are typical in an animated film and in film in general,” he adds. “Comic books don't have any blur. You just flip a panel. We knew it would be a real challenge to make a film without blur—we had to figure out new ways to animate.”
Bob Persichetti was a director on the film. “We spent almost two years developing the look and the way our characters move,” he says. “It was a struggle to make it work because we broke the animation pipeline. In computer animation, there's an image every single frame, and there are 24 frames in a second. We stripped out half of those images to make the movements feel crisper. And because we took out every idea of a motion blur, everything's crunchy and sharp—it helps make the images pop off the screen.”
Once the core team members had developed a unique visual language, it took hundreds of artists to apply the language to every frame of the film. Custom brushes for Adobe Photoshop CC helped keep things cohesive. “The artists on the show designed a series of brushes with different screen tones that are pressure-sensitive and scale-sensitive,” says Thompson. “They allow us to get the looks you see all over the film; for example, we can give the light one screen tone and the shadow another screen tone. Without the custom brushes, I don't think we could possibly make this film.”
In addition to being a director, Persichetti also created the film’s burst cards. “Comic books have a powerful storytelling tool: One frame captures a strong, clear story point,” he says. “It can be dynamic, dramatic, funny. We wanted to do the same thing in film. So at certain moments in the movie, we drop out the computer animation and go to these burst cards that are hand-drawn. Some of them are animated, some are stills. I did my animation drawings in Photoshop and then played with them in After Effects.”
Thompson adds, “That way, we're going in and out of the 2D origins of comic books and this highly stylized, rich 3D animative world that we've created.” The movie is designed to be at its best in 3D. “All of these effects had to work in three dimensions, in Z space,” Thompson says, “so the audience could move through a comic book and feel like they’re actually immersed in it.”
THIS IS NOT A FILM ABOUT SPIDER-MAN
The film’s crew spent years bringing the film to life. That may be one reason why everyone we interviewed spoke of the main character, Miles Morales, as if he were a real person.
Here’s a brief recap for those of you who haven’t followed Miles’ story in comic books, where he’s appeared since 2011: The Puerto Rican/African American teen develops special powers after being bitten by a radioactive spider. He at first rejects the responsibilities of being Spider-Man but eventually accepts the role and is coached by an equally reluctant (again, at first) Peter Parker.
“He started to inhabit my brain,” says Thompson. “I'd think, ‘What would Miles feel right now? What would he want to do in this moment? What would the world look like if Miles was sad? What would the world look like if Miles was happy, if Miles was overjoyed, if he was scared? This isn't a film about Spider-Man, per se; it's a film about Miles.”
Peter Ramsey, another director of the film, says that Miles opened the door to stories of a “younger Spider-Man who's dealing with a different set of problems than Peter Parker. Miles has a mom and dad who love him, he's having trouble in school, he's a little awkward, he's making a transition in his life... There are a lot of real-world problems we felt that kids in 2018 could latch onto and say, "Hey, that's me, I'm going through that.’ And because Miles is African American and Latino, he represents a segment of the audience that hasn't traditionally gotten to see themselves on screen. Especially when it comes to adjusting to a world that is not quite for you, and a world that you have to learn how to navigate through when crazy circumstances get dropped on your head.”
“I think I can speak for everybody on the movie and say that we all fell in love with Miles very early,” Ramsey says. “He feels real to us and we took presenting Miles to the movie-going audience seriously. We're hoping they take him to heart and that he becomes as beloved by them as Peter Parker is.”
Spider-Man™: Into the Spider-Verse opened in U.S. theaters nationwide on December 14, 2018.