“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” follows the adventures of an Afro-Latino teenager, Miles Morales, who has been bitten by a radioactive spider in Brooklyn and joins forces with other Spideys from alternate dimensions. It’s one of the animation surprises of the season: both a box office hit and a critical favorite (certified 97 percent fresh on Rotten Tomatoes) that has been collecting awards, even winning best picture from the Utah Film Critics Association.
One reason is the fresh animation style that sets it apart from the year’s other releases. “Spider-Verse” celebrates its print origins with bold graphics and mainstays of comic-book style, including thought balloons, printed words and wavy lines to indicate a tingling Spidey Sense. A.O. Scott, in his review for The Times, wrote that “the characters feel liberated by animation, and the audience will, too.”
[Read our review of “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”]
Many recent American animated features look homogenized. More powerful computers and sophisticated software have made it possible to produce intricately detailed backgrounds and characters: You can see every leaf on every tree and every stitch in a sweater. But characters of all shapes and sizes seem to have very similar walks and runs and expressions.
“Spider-Verse’s” three directors — Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman — wanted to move away from that sameness, in part because Miles is so unlike the Spider-Man fans know from the live-action movies. “That made it doubly important for the film to look new, so viewers would feel like they’re seeing Spider-Man for the first time,” Ramsey said. “We couldn’t rest on the conventions of animated films as we’ve known them.”
Many of those conventions are built into the systems that produce computer-generated imagery. “In C.G.I. films, many things you see onscreen are the result of the desire to automate the process: simulations for hair, cloth, wind, rain, etc.,” Persichetti explained. The decision to forgo tradition “was incredibly daunting — but also incredibly freeing.”
Initially, there was skepticism from the crew at Sony Pictures Imageworks, the studio’s visual effects and animation unit, Rothman said. “We were asking people to break the production pipeline they’d spent decades building,” he added. But Imageworks ultimately “embraced what Bob proposed and came up with crazy solutions for how to do things.”
One of the first decisions they made was to eliminate motion blur. In live action, some movements are so fast the images appear smeared in individual frames of film. Computer animation can simulate the effect, giving the imagery a smoother feel; eliminating the blur produced more staccato accents.
“When we decided to strip out motion blur, the people at Imageworks said, ‘That’s not going to work, you won’t be happy,’” Persichetti recalled. “We said, ‘No, that’s the goal: Make us unhappy. Then figure out a new way to make us happy.’ We’re creating incredible images in this movie and we want to see them as clearly as possible, so let’s not soften them.”
The artists made a bigger decision to break with the way most computer-animated motion is achieved. Usually movements are created by advancing the image — say, a character raising his arm — in each frame, 24 times per second. It’s called “animating on one’s.” The resulting motion is fluid and smooth, but it can look too regular, even stolid.
Having worked at Disney with the Oscar-winning animator Glen Keane (whose characters include Aladdin, Beast and Tarzan), Persichetti wanted to borrow ideas from hand-drawn techniques. In traditional animation, much of the movement is done “on two’s”: A new drawing is made or the image shifted every second frame. Using animation on two’s gave the artists more control over the speed and power of the movements. Much of the animation in classic Disney features and Warner Bros. cartoons was done on two’s.
Working on one’s and two’s let the artists vary the rhythms of movements. When a scared Miles dashes through a snowy forest, his run is animated on one’s to emphasize his speed. When he stumbles and falls, he rises on two’s as he slowly pushes against gravity to get back on his feet. And when he leaps from skyscraper to skyscraper, the animation crackles with an energy it might otherwise lack. The motions themselves become exciting to watch.
The animation also allows the filmmakers to stress dynamic poses that telegraph how Miles is leaping and spinning through Manhattan. The screenwriter-producer Phil Lord explained: “Telling stories in sequential art is all about the key pose and going from pose to pose and frame to frame. Stan Lee laid it out in ‘How to Draw Comics the Marvel Way.’”
But even the most exciting movements become empty exercises if they don’t contribute to our understanding of the characters. As he learns to control his newly acquired powers, Miles moves with more skill and confidence. He’s growing into the role of Spider-Man, but he’s also growing as an individual. The joy of his increasing strength and new friendships are balanced against the sorrow he experiences in his adventures. His movements and expressions reflect a new maturity.
During production, one of their directives was that “if it looks and feels like something from an animated film, it’s not our movie,” Persichetti said. “I think audiences are responding to that because it’s something they haven’t seen.”
One of the producers, Chris Miller (who directed “The Lego Movie” with Lord), explained that “we tried to avoid anything that felt like stock animation.”
“We looked at a lot of reference material and a lot of animators studied themselves in mirrors to figure how a kid like Miles would behave in that moment,” Miller said. “How can we make his movements specific to him instead of doing a standard take?”
If following Miles’s emotional journey wasn’t challenging enough, the animators also had to deal with a supporting cast of Spider-Men and Women from parallel dimensions. “Not only are they going to look different, their style of animation has to be different,” Ramsey said.
Looking back over the production, Miller concluded: “The technical challenges ended up being much more complicated than just doing the animation on two’s. But the techniques gave the film a signature look that emphasized the individual images.”
“From the beginning,” Miller said, “we wanted someone to be able to freeze any frame of the movie and have it look so good, they’d want to frame it and hang it on the wall.”