In a crowded year of Spider-Man news, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has stood out from the animated pack since its first teaser images dropped. Ahead of the film’s official release on Thursday, Spider-Verse is already scooping up awards and positive critical reception for its fresh, eye-popping visual take on the familiar superhero story. But how did the filmmakers push technology and design to pull off the movie?
How does Spider-Verse look so dang... cool? According to Patrick O’Keefe, one of the film’s two art directors, it was all about basic principles: Appreciation of the printed comic book form itself, the graphic simplification of animation, and admiration of live action cinematography. And then, stretching the boundaries of the design as far as possible without breaking the whole thing.
Below, O’Keefe discusses his graphics-laden trip through the multiverse, and presents six exclusive concept art images from the Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse production.
Polygon: Plot-wise, Spider-Verse is a wild ride, with a lot of different Spider-People involved, and a real mix of different styles and elements. What did the initial pitch look like, from the design side?
Patrick O’Keefe: From the get-go it was about this reductive graphic style, where we took the real world and blended it with the comic book world. From a design point of view, it’s about being very selective about shapes and value structure and hues, in order to get a really clean read on things. But it’s also a very curated look, in the sense that we’re paying attention to the details of city life and reality that, to me, a lot of animated films kind of gloss over, like the graffiti, or gum stuck on the mailboxes, as well as the complexity of the textures. There’s a lot of unnecessary [visual] information floating around the world, so we were really selective as to which bits of information to omit and which ones we should overemphasize. We hand-painted a lot of our textures in an impressionistic way, because for us, it’s the type of film, and the type of character, that would have an appreciation for a brick wall or a New York street. Anything that would help make [the story] uniquely placed in its environment is something we would double down on while at the same time, there were a number of aspects that were completely omitted.
A lot of the textures that you have in there feel very hand-hewn, but it looks like you’re bringing in the printed comic book roots in other visual ways.
In a comic book, there’s no lens. So there’s no lens blur. To stay true to the medium, we decided to go with a CMYK offsetting as our blur. The film actually has no motion blur in it, but, instead, borrows from certain anime techniques to replicate the feeling of motion with a frame. At first it was a real problem because you’d get a lot of [visual] chatter. Despite our best intentions, you still need a “lens” that can focus. So we decided, all the [sense of] focus is done with a CMYK offsetting like you’d get off a four-pass printing press. Then we were bringing in the halftones, because that’s old school comic book DNA, as well, where you would have these halftone patterns that you’d rub on that would become your grades. Our lighting is actually rendering in these halftones. It was a major undertaking by our incredible team at Imagework, who deserve all the praise in the world for their hard work.
Those are the three big elements at play: This appreciation and curation of the subject, the graphic simplification of the real world and the comic book texturing. Then, on top of that, there was everybody’s admiration of true live action cinematography. That’s the juxtaposition; you have characters with halftones on them, and CMYK offset, but then you have a very real camera — an almost Alfonso Cuarón from Children of Men- style camera — moving around the environment. That juxtaposition means it still feels very real, but if you stop any frame it looks like a [comic] panel.
Were there other design challenges that came up when applying these 2D graphic ideas to film?
Definitely. It’s a film that’s complex with its visual language, and the environment itself is extremely rich in terms of its detailing. It was a challenge to keep the character in the forefront, and to keep the action moving. Robh Ruppel, early on in production, described it as ‘a master class in graphic design.’ We talked about this all the time. In terms of the frame, there needs to be a very clean hierarchy of information. That’s where a lot of the graphic simplification comes in.
Particularly with so much going on, visual hierarchy is really important.
Oh yeah, once you get five Spider-People in one scene, it gets pretty intense. And, because we’re throwing the audience a lot of things that are new — things that they’re not typically used to seeing, like a render script that’s so different, character and environment design that’s so different — it meant that getting that clean read on the frame was of the utmost importance. So we struck this perfect balance with an amazing team of great painters, that are also really good graphic designers. Yuhki Demers, one of our designers, was especially helpful in finding the balance. As a huge Spider-Man fan and great designer, he was able to balance the graphic/comic book aesthetic while always maintaining the right amount of fanfare and Easter eggs to make it extra special for the die-hard fans.
Our mantra throughout the film was ‘make this read like a comic book.’ If the set needs to be moved, if the focal length needs to be changed, if character staging needs to break, that’s fine. At the end of the day, it was all about paying homage to classic comic book design language.
You’ve spoken to the particular challenges in establishing the design principles that govern the film. But you’ve also got characters from alternate realities, who are rendered very differently. At what point did it become obvious that you were going to go really wide with the designs for those characters?
It would have been easy just to have done everybody in that look [of the rest of the film], but it didn’t seem like we were doing justice to these unique, individual characters. Our character designers, Shiyoon Kim and Jesus Alonso Iglesias, did an amazing job creating the individual, distinct personalities, and then it was the great work of character painters Wendell Dalit and Yashar Kassai that put these characters into different dimensions by pushing the render styling.
So, in effect, we ended up making five movies. It just made sense to go that far with it.
Well, it sounds like leadership was behind you at that point.
Yeah, and [the design] is what it had to be, if we wanted to celebrate Miles the way we did. It gave us an opportunity to not only create these other universes, but then to show how each one is unique and special unto itself. It really comes from a love within the crew for all these different styles. For Ham, it was very much an homage and celebration [of things like] Pigs is Pigs (WB, 1937), and classical animation. I got to do a lot of the noir stuff, and I was pulling from a lot of John Paul Leon, heavy ink comic books. SP//dr is very Kill la Kill. Our crew — and especially our production designer, Justin K. Thompson — are the biggest art nerds in the world. They would get so excited about taking the look there. Thankfully, [producers] Phil Lord, Chris Miller, and [directors] Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, Rodney Rothman are all these talented creatives that say, “Oh, we have to do it! We have to take advantage of this opportunity!”
I mean, how could anyone pass up an opportunity to make an entirely black and white Spider-character who speaks only in 1930s idioms. Y’know? That’s priceless. When else are we going to have that chance? So it was always about seizing the opportunity to do the most clever thing, kind of a ‘no stone unturned’ mentality. The biggest fear always seems to be that we didn’t go far enough. Asking, ‘is this the best version of that idea, and can we go further?’
Were there any kill-your-darlings moments, certain directions or design choices along the way that you ultimately moved on from, but you still think fondly on?
Oh, constantly. But there was an understanding throughout the team, and ultimately the production at large, that it’s not simply about coming up with the greatest idea. It’s about the best idea for the project. A lot of times you’re doing work to figure out what isn’t going to go in the film. We have artwork for things that would have been really cool, but would have left the audience asking way too many questions, and taking us down a rabbit hole that is not necessary to tell the story of Miles and the other Spiders. As a result, you never get bummed, or turned off when a great idea that you all really believed in just doesn’t fit, because in the end it’s all about the whole.
Because of where you wanted this to go, visually, did you find that you were going outside of the traditional hiring pool?
This is my first animated film. I worked previously doing a lot of concept art for video games, and for advertising. I always wanted to do animated films, but I was always bothered by the idea that the final look of the film landed so far from the inspired concept art. I felt like I wouldn’t have much of an impact on the way a film looks because it goes through the studio machine. I never knew where I could fit in. And then here was an opportunity where they wanted to do something different, and did need to look outside the box.
We didn’t fall into anything too familiar, because it was unfamiliar territory for a lot of us. But there was so much support from the studio in our vision, that it was okay for us to be like, “Okay, we know what we want, how do we do it?” And Danny Dimian, the VFX supervisor of Imageworks would respond, “We’ll show you how to get it, and if we don’t know we’ll figure it out.” It was a studio-wide effort of everybody believing in the vision and the message. So it was okay that we didn’t exactly know how to do things, or even that we had to invent new ways to do things.
Sometimes having people who don’t have that rigidity of traditional experience can be freeing, as long as you have some guidance.
Absolutely. Often when you’d get somebody who’s been around the block too many times, they might say, “Whoa, hold on a second. That’s not how it’s done.” And we’d be like, “Oh, that’s cool. We’re not interested in exactly how it’s done! We’re interested in doing it our own way.”
It all goes back to the studio supporting this absolute ragtag crew of people, artists who are inspired by each other to do something very personal and different. Painters like Zac Retz, Peter Chan and Dave Bleich who worked tirelessly with [art director] Dean Gordon to develop one of the most unique colour palettes I have ever seen.
Miles is a character that connected with all of us. He’s very unique, especially in the representation he brings to the screen. But capturing everybody’s personal fingerprints on the project is what made it continually unique, and it just naturally seemed deserving of a story that parallels that, where Miles is doing it his own way. Our design ideology, when looked at under a microscope, is a mix of all these different people’s tastes and opinions. You’d hand the painting off to somebody, and that would come back, and you’d want to build on top of that. Throughout every step of the way personal touches were being added. And that’s what makes it, at least in my mind, very unique, and hopefully means an audience can make a connection with it.
It sounds like there was a lot of feeling of ownership in the way the ultimate product looked.
Phil and Chris are very democratic about their filmmaking. Anybody’s idea could be the best idea. Everybody’s encouraged to speak up in the room. It was never a matter of ‘my idea versus your idea’. It’s this pool of ideas we’re drawing from, thinking, how can we continually push it, and come up with something even better?
When we would do our reviews, they were open to pretty much anybody who wanted to come in. When I first jumped on the team as a viz-dev artist, I would go to every review I possibly could. It was all about catching the vibe. I think that openness led to people becoming more invested. You started caring a lot, and you get that ownership that you’re talking about it. Once you have a sense of ownership, you have a sense of responsibility to make sure that this thing is the best it can be. I think for everybody it felt like such an amazing opportunity.
Like a game of design chicken. Were you thinking, How far will they let us push this?
100 percent. With the entire crew of artists, that was very much the case. We’re so comfortable with the style now, that we forget. Then somebody sees it for the first time and they’re like [sotto voce], “What did I just see?”
It constantly had you reevaluating people’s appetite for pushing abstraction. The film gets wildly striking in places, and I think some of us were nervous about that, but in the end it’s very liberating. As a crew, we wanted to break that barrier. We were constantly saying, “Let’s push this thing until it breaks, and then we’ll reel it back in if we have to.” That was always the art direction, where we would say, “I feel like we’re just making it incrementally more insane. Can you make it positively insane?” And then if we have to we’ll bring it back down again so we don’t terrify children with this mind-bending experience.
Did it ever break?
There was a set or two that we designed that definitely broke. It was one of those moments where someone would say, “I don’t think he’s gone far enough.” And then you’d respond, “Oh, you think I can go further? I’ll show you further.” Then we came back in and everybody went said, “That looks crazy — we can’t put that in the movie. That doesn’t even make any sense anymore’ we’d have to rewrite a character to explain that.” OK, cool. Now we know what too crazy is! It’s all about what is going to tell the story of Miles the best. Sometimes you go too far, and it can distract from that, and that’s never what you want. That’s the difference between a good idea and the right idea for sure.
There have been a lot of Spider-projects out this year, with the Spider-Man PS4 game, more Spider-Man in the MCU, etc. How does Spider-Verse find its place in that pack?
It’s definitely the year of Spider-Man! Which is fantastic, and I’m happy we’re kind of capping the year off with Miles, a half-African American, half-Puerto Rican, Brooklyn-born Spider-Man, who has both his parents and is just trying to figure out who he is as a human. Everyone knows the story of Spider-Man, but Miles is unique and, as a result, his film is really unique. It tells a story that I think the world really needs right now. Anybody can be your hero, and you can be a hero to anybody.
We’re blessed to live in a time where there there’s an acceptance towards variety in design. That’s all we can ask from the world of designers, to keep trying to do something different. Just like Miles, you do have to do it your own way.
Zev Chevat is an award-winning animated filmmaker and production designer whose work has screened at festivals worldwide. In addition to his animation credits, Zev has written media criticism for Racked, Bitch Magazine, The Mary Sue and Animation World Network. He teaches at Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, New York. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram, @zevchevat, and see his work at zevchevat.com.