spider-man: into the spider-verse
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Credit: Sony Pictures Animation

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse required inventing a new kind of animation technology

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Dec 4, 2018, 3:02 PM EST (Updated)

With six big-screen Spider-Man movies (featuring three different guys in the suit) and no fewer than nine distinct animated Spidey series over the course of the wall crawler's history, presenting yet another iteration of Spider-Man was always going to be a challenge. The only hope Sony Pictures had of making a new Spider-Man movie relevant, let alone a success, was to make it as different as possible from every previous piece of Spider-content, to spin a web in an entirely new direction.

With the animated Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the studio and its filmmakers did just that, not only by introducing a new web-slinger, but by creating a fully fresh look that hearkens back to the original source material while blasting through technological barriers, giving even the most jaded moviegoer something new to look at. Into the Spider-Verse is an animated film as conduit to other art forms, funneling street art, comic books, painting, stop-motion through computers and new digital techniques to create something new, a disparate yet somehow coherent moving collage.

The film features a new and fledgling teenage Spider-Man in Miles Morales, who exists in a world that already has Spider-Man comic books and movies that sensationalize the exploits of the original wall crawler, Peter Parker, who is a celebrity in this universe. That meta angle provided an opportunity for the movie's filmmaking team to integrate the comic book style into a movie, with scenes playing out in panels, narration presented in caption boxes, ben-day dots providing background color, and characters that, while computer-animated, often look hand-drawn.

Somewhat ironically, it took a few technological advancements to graft the old-school hand-drawn look to modern computer animation.

"To find a really expressive version of [hand-drawn] line work on top of a CGI character, we had to come up with some new code and algorithms," Bob Persichetti, one of the three directors on Into the Spider-Verse, recently told SYFY WIRE. "On top of that, we also stripped out half of the frames in a second — in traditional CGI there's an image on every single frame, so there are 24 moving images, whereas in traditional animation there's only 12."

The effect was to slow down the movement of the characters, taking out just a bit of the fluidity. It was a subtle cue to the viewer that this was supposed to be a story being told in part on paper, setting the movie apart from its contemporary animated features. But when Persichetti mentions a new algorithm, he's not talking about some modest adjustment to a line of code that then automatically changed every image and sequence, cascading a new style uniformly through the animation.

Cutting the frames per second in half subsequently required a new pipeline for just about every detail: "cloth, lighting, camera moves, and all those things, none of it worked anymore," Perischetti said, laughing.

In response, they had to conduct a top-down reconsideration of their process and programming, so they could both generate images in CG (which takes one kind of artistry) as well as produce the extra layers meant to mimic all the other influences and forms, from comic books to street and pop art to hard science fiction. Every single character was a blend of many forms, with each Spider-hero, visiting from different universes, requiring unique styles and design.

"We developed a rig system for the animators where they had the CGI 'puppet,' if you want to call it that, then they had the ability to draw with three-dimensional line work," Perschetti explained, noting how each character's comic book details were added. "It was all worked out in rough animation and then was refined in lighting as we [figured out] the color and gage of the lines. Those were the finishing touches of it, touching all the frames as we finished it."

"Every shot in the movie was essentially finished by hand through that system," added Rodney Rothman, another one of the film's directorial triumvirate. "Which was part of the whole aesthetic of the movie that we were going for. A combination of hand-drawn, 2D animation, and 3D animation."

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse Miles Morales

Credit: Sony Pictures/Marvel

It took a full year to just figure out the style, and the hyper-frenetic, so however slapdash it may seem at any moment, the visual overflow wasn't done purely for aesthetics. There was a method to the exciting madness, a reason why they poured on comic book panels and captions and splashes and "hand-drawn" details on vast canvasses. The chaos on screen was meant to envelope the viewer in the chaos that their protagonist felt.

"We open the movie with a big Spider-Man montage where there's a lot of that stuff happening. Then when we go join Miles, we really stop with that completely," Rothman said. "We don't start to reintroduce that stuff until after Miles is bitten by the spider. That was part of how we were trying to express Miles entering into a new phase of his life and starting a new experience. Having been bitten by the spider, now he's experiencing all those things and we're using them to convey how overwhelmed he is, how overwhelmed his senses are."

Animation is such a long and detailed process, with stories and scenes reimagined over and over again and so many layers to each and every shot, it's rare that many finished scenes or shots ever get cut from the final product. With the painstaking detail required in Into the Spider-Verse, they tried to minimize the discarded scenes, though there still wound up being more than enough for home video… or beyond.

"You can look forward to a pretty over-stuffed, alternate deleted scenes coming up on the Blu-ray some day," Peter Ramsey, the film's third director, said. "They have I think about 10 to 12 minutes in total of animation that's not in the movie that's done. We will have an alt-universe version of it, I'm sure."