The second half of 2018 was an eventful few months for animation. This summer, Cartoon Network and HowStuffWorks released Drawn, a miniseries dedicated to cartoon history; meanwhile, as expected, The Incredibles 2 broke records at the box office. Fall yielded Netflix’s The Dragon Prince, a new series from the head writer of the beloved Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as news that the head writer of Rick and Morty would be developing a new Star Trek animated series in conjunction with Discovery producer Alex Kurtzman’s five-year CBS deal. Major projects like Noelle Stevenson’s She-Ra: Princess of Power reboot for Netflix and Disney’s internet-inspired Wreck-It Ralph sequel rounded out the year.
But even with all this going on, the excitement over Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse seemed to rule 2018 in animation. Buzz about this first-ever feature-length animated Spidey film was fevered from the moment its first trailer hit in June; the art style felt fresh and thrilling in a way no animated movie had in years. And the movie didn’t disappoint: currently sitting at a solid 97 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, it’s a critical success as well as a box-office hit. Maybe that was predictable, since the film was produced by The Lego Movie favorites Phil Lord and Chris Miller, but audiences have raved about the film’s unique aesthetics just as much as the story itself. The film’s eclectic, ambitious, constantly shifting visuals — which range from deliberately cartoony to abstract and psychedelic — are likely to help inspire a new wave of animators to start pushing past the Pixar Animation house style that so many animation studios are now rigorously emulating.
Back in July, at San Diego Comic-Con, The Verge spoke with Into the Spider-Verse’s three directors — Bob Persichetti (Puss in Boots, The Little Prince), Peter Ramsey (A Wrinkle in Time, The Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman (Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Forgetting Sarah Marshall) — about what it took to deliver the film’s iconic look, a blend of hand-drawn and digital animation techniques that birthed a whole new kind of cartoon.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
There’s been a bit of shifting in terms of who’s credited for what on the project. How did you all join the film?
Bob Persichetti: I came on in December 2015, through a separate project that I was working on at Sony. Then Kristine Belson, the head of Sony Pictures Animations, said, “Hey, we have this other thing we’d like you to read, you might be right for it… Do you like Spider-Man?”
And who says, “Nah, not really a fan”?
BP: Right? It’s a trick question. Then she said, “Do you like Phil Lord and Chris Miller?” I was like, “Oh, okay. Very Interesting.” I read a 40-page treatment, and ended up saying I’d love to be a part of it. When the movie comes out December 14th, I will have been working on this project three years almost to the day.
Peter Ramsey: I was actually working on another project with Into the Spider-Verse producer Avi Arad and got drawn into Spider-Man not too long after Bob, because of the scope of the project and then the schedule, which was pretty tight. The producers were kind of feeling like, “Okay, let’s make sure we have enough horses pulling the wagon to get this thing done in time.”
Rodney Rothman: Peter and I have worked together in the past.
PR: Actually quite a bit, so it was kind of a natural fit.
RR: I had started on the movie and worked with these guys initially as a writer. Around the time when production was really ramping up, I came in to direct. We all basically worked on everything a little bit, but I focused a lot on script and some of the front-end stuff: records, editing. We all kind of bounced off each other basically.
There are a lot of Spider-Man movies, both in the past and coming down the pipeline, and this is the big-screen debut for Miles Morales. How did you approach characterizing him in animation?
BP: In the moment when you’re asked, “Hey, how do you feel about Spider-Man?” You go, “Yeah, I love Spider-Man, but do we really need another Spider-Man movie?” That was the first reaction, and then you go, “Oh! Miles Morales? Okay, cool.” As you start to peel back the layers of this film, that’s what really hooks me — a different take on an origin story for Spider-Man.
We’ve seen it over and over, and that presented a really fantastic creative challenge. Everyone thinks they know the way Spider-Man was created. We have the same ingredients, but it’s through Miles’ point of view. He has a family — a mother and father, which is as rare as you can get in this world. He’s from Brooklyn. It felt natural to roll the idea of Miles Morales into Brooklyn, given the creation of the comics in New York. We feed all those things into this movie and it just felt like an expanding, natural, rhyming universe. For me, it was a blast.
Miles stands out as the first non-white Spider-Man, but how did you approach making him distinctive among all the other spider-people in this movie?
RR: A lot of it starts with the comic books, all of us reading them, reacting to them, trying to figure out what makes this person different and specific. A lot of it comes from building this world around him, visually and in terms of how it feels unique and different. We put a lot of energy into creating a world and experience for the audience that isn’t like other things they’ve seen, that has its own DNA and fingerprint.
What did you bring to the project that wasn’t in the comics?
PR: I guess it’s probably putting a finer point on the story to tell it in the time we have. We had to engineer certain things to have more focus or impact than the comics. They’re spooling out a continuing story. We have to boil down the essence of the journey Miles is taking. For me, it comes down to, what’s his version of “With great power comes great responsibility”? What does that mean to this 13-year-old kid growing up in Brooklyn, and his circumstance in the year 2018, that’s different from what is was for Peter Parker back in 1960-whatever?
Also, like what Bob was saying, this kid has a mom and dad, and they have attitudes about Spider-Man, because it’s a universe that already has Spider-Man. All those elements take cues from the comics. In the script, Phil was basically like, “Boil it down to the essentials. From there, construct whatever new pieces we needed for the movie. The themes in the comics, how do we express those in our two-hour movie?”
RR: It’s about Miles, the family around him, what they’re like, the city that’s around him, what that’s like. When we boil it down, it emanates from that.
How did you develop your visual style?
PR: [Deadpan] There’s this guy in Van Nuys who does it all. We don’t even know what he’s doing.
BP: [More deadpan] We send him the script and we just keep getting this stuff.
PR: We subscribe to a cool animation magazine, and this guy had an ad in the back!
BP: A 15-year-old.
RR: [Also deadpan] It’s being made out of a garage.
It feels like a mash-up of different kinds of animation. It’s got the illustrative style of comic books. It’s got a Pixar or DreamWorks feel in the character design. It’s also a little psychedelic. How did you land on that combination?
BP: In the same vein of “Why make another Spider-Man?,” it was, “Well this is part of that.” We have the cachet of making a Spider-Man movie, and that let us be more adventurous with the style of the filmmaking. With the power of the franchise behind us, it became, “Let’s try to create something that feels uniquely Spider-Man and Miles Morales-specific.”
We looked at how comic books are made, going all the way back to silk-screening and printing-press ideas. Then we took the current CG animation pipeline and said, “Okay, how do we make something that looks like this and feels like this, but is still cinematic and large and produceable?”
Because that’s the thing: you can do it on a super-small scale, but how do you make a whole movie look like that? That was really the biggest challenge, was just trying to come up with this really cool visual style and animation style and procedurally scale it up: “How do we deal with all the things that have been created in CG animation over the last 20 years?” All these algorithms do all this stuff naturally. They all depend on certain things. We took a lot of those certain things out. We had to have the people write new code and come up with new theories on how to make cloth move, all this in-the-weeds stuff that always prevented a new style. The existing algorithms took a really long time to develop, so nobody in animation had the ability to then say, “We’re not going to use that stuff you spent all that time and money developing.” We got lucky. We got that privilege, basically. We got to keep pushing, and we discovered something that ended up working.
Can you give an example of what you’re talking about — those things you had to patch or remake?
BP: For example, all our animation is on twos. In standard film, you shoot 24 frames per second. In old traditional hand-drawn animation, you would draw 12 drawings per second. Every other frame was repeated to give a certain crispness to the movement. If you wanted something to feel smoother, you’d put it on ones. The existing computer-animation process reads everything on ones. All the simulations, from hair to cloth to you name it, all those algorithms require an image on every single frame. What seems like it would be incredibly simple — “Let’s just drop every other frame out and animate this one on twos” — blows up the whole pipeline.
At a base level, we animated the whole movie on twos, which makes it feel crisper and almost crunchy, and really sharp. That was an attempt to get to a place that felt like comic-book panels, where you really have impact with an image, and it burns into your psyche. You’re like, “Wow, that’s the most powerful version of that image I could get.”
We’re trying to chase that, so we started stripping, animating on twos. A lot of these young animators never have done that, because it was passé. They’d only worked on computers, and they don’t know how it used to work. I was lucky enough to come into this industry right on the cusp of CG. Just that thing alone required months and months and months and months and months to figure out. “Okay, so we can animate on twos, but how do we finish it? How do we do everything else?” I got to meet all these wonderful people who wrote code that saved the movie.
RR: And who are pumped to be trying something different. Once you solve all these crazy problems, then the next puzzle comes: “Well, how do we use all these cool new tools that were developed to express the story and emotion in a way that is more evocative than if we had just done it a normal way?” Once they build the playground—
You have to create the language on top of that.
RR: It really becomes, “How do we now tell our story in a way that only we can, using these cool new things?”
BP: I think that was the biggest revelatory moment for us, when we went from our first teaser, which was mostly cityscapes and Miles, all this really cool-looking stuff. That was a lot of “Let’s paint this impressionistic version of New York and Spider-Man.” Then when we released our actual trailer, you saw a lot of good characters, these incredible emotional relationships developing. That was proof of the style not overwhelming the content. That was always the fine line we were trying to walk.
Trying to maintain equal parts style and substance?
PR: That was a huge challenge as we were developing the look. For the longest time, we would go, “Okay, what does just a normal character having a conversation in daytime look like?” For a long time, we didn’t have an answer for something that basic in this new style we were pushing. When we finally got to a place where you were looking at something that you thought the style was really cool, but you were able to look past it and get straight to the performance and the emotion, that was the hallelujah moment: “Oh, it’s actually going to work!”
Action movies in general have gotten so much quicker in terms of how action sequences are staged, what audiences are expected to keep up with. How do you pace a movie like this?
BP: There were moments where we leaned into that, where speed and pace is part of the propulsion of the movie. At other times, we sit back and slow down and let you enjoy character moments. We have a lot of that. There are just a lot of, hopefully, engaging moments, relationship-building moments. Also, it’s a Marvel movie, it’s a Spider-Man movie, it’s an action film. We want to break new ground on that as well. We can’t do it at the cost of engagement with the characters. It’s a fine balance.
But you’re still working within the pacing of the larger superhero-movie canon.
BP: I’d say very much so. If anything, we’re just trying to embrace what the tools can give us to push how exciting and dynamic can it get. How much can we exaggerate action or visuals or color—
PR: —that no live-action Marvel movie could ever do.
RR: One nice thing about telling this story with animation is that there isn’t a point of disbelief for the audience.
So you can really do whatever with your characters?
BP: Yeah, but it also goes the other way.
RR: In the first couple of minutes of the movie, people are adjusting to a look and feel and a palette. We can’t lose them with effects. It’s all an integrated world. But you can do a lot in that world, and that’s part of what was exciting. The flip side — I think we do operate in some ways like the movies are talking about. In other ways, part of the fun challenge was seeing if we just do a scene between two characters, slow down for a few minutes, and let the characters communicate to us, what does that feel like in this new world that we’re creating? We’ve been really psyched and encouraged by the way it feels and looks.