This article about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” first appeared in the TheWrap magazine’s Oscar Nominations Preview issue.
“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” isn’t the first animated movie to design characters with a blend of hand-drawn and computer animation, but there’s certainly never been a movie that has used that hybrid technique to create such an explosive world of color and inventiveness.
The Sony Pictures Animation team, led by directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman, have taken the 2-D/3-D mashup style developed six years ago for the Disney short Paperman and completely reinvented it to tell the story of how Miles Morales joins the elite club of individuals turned into superheroes by radioactive spiders.
Every scene was the result of an elaborate process that began with basic 3-D layouts and animation models. Then the animators added facial expressions and other character and environmental details by hand. Finally, the footage returned to the computer, with the CG animators using the hand-drawn lines as a rig to complete the facial expressions and scenery.
This required bespoke, patent-pending animation techniques and programs that Rothman said “were designed and coded by super-smart people who are not us.” But the end result was possibly the finest example of the phrase comic book come to life that has ever been put to film. Ben-Day dots, thought bubbles and stylistic nods to Steve Ditko and Stan Lee’s classic Spider-Man comics and cartoons are littered through every frame.
Inspirations from other visual styles can be seen in the web-slingers who join Peter Parker and Miles Morales, a newcomer to the big screen but a comic-book Spidey for years. They’re joined by the monochromatic shadows of Spider-Man Noir, the Chuck Jones-inspired slapstick of Spider-Ham and the anime-style Peni Parker, who looks like a completely hand-drawn character but is actually a mix of 3-D and 2-D.
“She’s possibly the flattest 3-D animated character ever,” Ramsey said of Peni. “If you looked at her in the rendering software and turned her slightly, she looks like this weird, thin figure. We worked for weeks to get Peni just right, to make her look like she’s a 2-D anime figure when in reality, she’s made through the same process as everyone else.”
And that’s just one character. To create a single second of footage for the film, the “Spider-Verse” team needed an entire week to go through the multi-medium animation process, sometimes even longer if there was an error in the jump from computer to hand-drawn and back. This was especially true for the climactic battle between the Spider-Men and the nefarious Kingpin, which takes place inside the villain’s dimension-bending machine.
“Every single day, we had a roadblock in our way,” Persichetti said. “In most CGI films, you see this fluid style of motion, but we wanted to get that sort of crunchy frame rate of 2-D animation. So we animated on 2s, which means we put one image for every two frames that you see in the film, and it creates this unique, almost stop-motion movement.
“That sounds like less work, but it tripled the work because the computer animation software was used to an image in every frame. So we had to create new algorithms for everything,” he said. “And in the climax, where’s there’s so much going on, it was a challenge getting everything to work.”
To read more of the Oscars Nomination Preview issue, click here.