With bright, punchy colours, sharp animation and snappy editing, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse sucks viewers into Miles Morales’ wild ride from the get-go. It’s no surprise that this Marvel-lous feat of animated glory has racked up more than $350 million worldwide and scored several industry awards, making it Sony’s leading animated title. It has changed the landscape for future animated films.
CG Spectrum caught up with Sony Pictures Imageworks’ supervising animator Jeff Panko and lead lighting and compositing artist Geeta Basantani to discover just how this bold look was developed, and the challenges that came with breaking new animation ground.
Creating a new aesthetic
Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is made up of more than 2,600 shots; bigger than a regular animated movie, and unimaginably more complex. “No one has ever done anything like this before,” says Basantani, who worked on the first shot of the movie through to the very last.
Basantani played a major role in developing the stylistic choices used throughout the Spider-Verse. “The art directors were very bold. We were just going for it," she adds.
With around 800 people working on the film, there was a delicate balance to be found between individual creativity and overarching consistency. In order for the movie to work, everyone had to be on board with the fundamental style.
“Sony had teams for each sequence, so I went on every team to help them understand the language of the movie,” explains Basantani. “There’s this balance of needing to keep things consistent, but we didn’t want to shackle creative people.”
“What [the film’s directors] wanted was the individual hand of the animator to be visible in every shot,” explains Panko, who entered the Spider-Verse in August 2017. “So there wasn’t a hard rule for anything. You could do your own artistic pass."
While artists were encouraged to inject their own creative spice to their work, sequences still needed to flow seamlessly from one to the other. So to get everyone on the same page early on, the team developed a very intentional style language of light, colour, hatchings, lines and dots.
“For example, light and reflections were defined by dots, and all of the shadows were lines. And they go thick and thin. If you zoom in, there are dots everywhere,” says Basantani. “We were against glow. There’s never a ‘soft glow’ moment in the movie. So when you see the train lights coming closer, all the ‘glows’ are visually designed with dots that go from thick to thin.”
“There were different standards for every type of light,” she continues. “There’s a particular style for a lamp versus a big source of light. Whenever the sun hits the street, for example, you see this red fringing. It’s called a fringe treatment.”
Every detail in the movie was deliberate. And with every Spider-Person bringing their own visual flavour, it was vital to set style standards for each character. For example, when Spider-Man was around, reds and blues were more prominent.
If you paid close attention, you would have also noticed geometry floating on surfaces, and lines floating in space. “The modelling was done that way; it was offset a little bit. And then floating textures were added here and there. Like if it’s a boring wall, we’d float a texture on it,” says Basantani.
Consistency was a struggle, especially early on when the language was still in its infancy. Panko recalls that initially some artists were overdoing the smears and ink lines, for example. In the end, Josh Beveridge, the head of character animation, made the call that smears and ink lines looked really good for one, maybe two frames, but any more than that and they became a distraction.
Sample shots provided the artists with a sense of what would or wouldn’t work. “Once there were enough shots, you could say to an artist: Your idea is good, just pattern it after this shot,” adds Panko.
One step, two step
Undoubtedly, part of the film’s visual appeal came from a very specific decision early on to not use any motion blur. “What seems like motion blur is actually ‘shifting’, which is basically taking the same image and repeating or stepping it, echoing it in fact,” explains Basantani. "It’s an echo treatment. Stepping it like that gives you an illusion that it’s motion blur, but it’s not. It’s sharper.”
Traditionally, the illusion of movement in film (which runs on 24 frames per second) happens when each frame has a different image and they are viewed consecutively. In animation, if each frame contains a new drawing, you’re animating 'on ones'. But Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse was done primarily 'on twos', which means they would hold every second frame.
Animating on both ones and twos comes with its own set of challenges. “Usually when you animate on twos and try to pose every second frame, you can tell it was posed on every second frame; it doesn’t have a nice flow to it," says Panko. "Personally, I found it best to animate the shot on ones, and go through, bake everything out, and delete every second key and step it.”
It took countless hours of testing and experimenting to get the look right, and several custom tools were built to support the artists in the process. One such tool enabled artists to animate their shots in the traditional way, but a play blast would output every second frame, giving it the ‘stepping’ effect. This came in handy for dailies.
Another obstacle to overcome was having animation on twos and what that meant for the hair and cloth department. Panko explains: “With regular animation you can get by on twos. But hair and cloth need to simulate on ones, because otherwise it jumps all over the place. So it was way more involved than just animating straight ahead.”
“In the publish process, we’d have these different checks: like do you have step keys on every control on every frame? And if you have some frames that had step keys, some that have spline keys, your publish wouldn’t go through because it’s not usable by hair and cloth,” he adds.
Another neat trick up Sony’s sleeve was the Ink Line tool, which allowed artists to add strokes in Maya that replicated a comic book artist’s pen hatching or smears. “You could actually draw the stroke, and it would create a hierarchy on the stroke,” says Panko. “It would then create this chain of controls, so once you created a stroke you could go in and move the controls to pose it.”
The development of this tool involved some serious trial and error. Panko explains that occasionally artists were adding strokes, which worked in 2D space to camera, but the stereo department required that they exist in proper 3D space. Once they realised their strokes wouldn’t translate to 3D, some of the stroke work had to be redone.
Pushing creative limits
Despite the challenges, the film came together impeccably. Thanks to the creative vision and boldness of the film’s directors, and the many hundreds of talented artists who added personal touches, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has undoubtedly left its mark on the animation world.
“Even before I was on the show, I saw all the concept art and thought, 'Man, if we could get it to look anything like this, it’s going to be amazing!'" says Panko. “The lighting and comp teams pushed so hard to make it look like the concept art. I think it was pretty much spot on."
For Basantani, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is a definite career highlight. For future animators and compositors, Basantani offers her encouragement: “I remember watching Spider-Man with my brother. He was my superhero growing up. I really wanted to work on Spider-Man. It’s a childhood dream come true, even if it took 20 years. Don’t give up. Keep aiming.”
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