The veteran producer shares insights on trusting her team of artists, producers and Phil Lord’s original vision in Sony Pictures Animation’s new hit animated adventure about an alternative, and highly stylized Spider-Man universe.
With this past Friday’s successful release of Sony Pictures Animation’s revolutionary comic book adventure, Sony Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, audiences have shown they’re ready to embrace new, contemporary takes on familiar classics, told using unconventional, bold and highly sophisticated styles of animated storytelling they’ve never seen before.
Christina Steinberg (The Bee Movie, Rise of the Guardians), one of the film’s main producers, was there from the project’s beginning more than three years ago, working day to day with Phil Lord, Christopher Miller and the production team to help turn Brian Michael Bendis and Sara Pichelli’s 2011 comic book, about alternative Spider-People from six different Spider-Universes, into a never-before tried animated feature film. Lord’s original idea, that anyone can be behind the mask, was just crazy enough to inspire the studio to back the film, a risky venture unlike any cinematic version of Spider-Man the world has ever seen. Initial box office results, along with word of mouth, indicate the risk was well worth it.
AWN recently spoke with Steinberg about the difficulties she faced bringing Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse to the screen, on time and in a coherent fashion. She spoke at length about the challenges of producing animation that took four times longer than normal, of keeping everyone focused on making the “same” film as well as handling ongoing doubts about the viability of visualizing key areas of the film, including the pivotal third-act action sequences. Read the full Q&A, which has been edited for length and clarity, below:
AWN: What were your main responsibilities on the film?
Christina Steinberg: I came on board as a producer to work with Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord], as well as Amy [Pascal, one of the film’s producers] and Avi [Arad, another of the film’s producers]. As you know, this film was such a huge and risky undertaking for the studio. They really had to reinvent the production pipeline at Sony Imageworks. We had three incredibly talented directors who were all focused on different aspects of the movie, but also worked really well together. Bob Persichetti, who I’ve known forever since our DreamWorks days, was the first director on board. Then Peter Ramsey, who directed Rise of the Guardians, that I produced at DreamWorks, came on. And then Rodney Rothman came on board, first to write the script with Phil, then staying on as third director. There were a lot of moving pieces and a lot of different aspects of the movie to produce and work on with everybody. I was sort of there as the day to day producer, from casting to the dailies to production design. We all had to work together to bring this gigantic beast to life. It was really one of the best experiences I’ve ever had as a producer.
AWN: This is a big film with a lot of moving parts, the likes of which we’ve never really seen animated and integrated in this way. With so many very different visuals, mixing CG and hand-drawn animation techniques, I imagine you had no way to really know what was working until you were quite far along in the production process.
CS: You’re absolutely right. That was one of the big things on this film. Our production designer Justin Thompson, who is truly a mad genius, and Danny Dimian at Imageworks, who’s our visual effects supervisor…I mean, we trusted them implicitly, but we would sit there and say, “Is this going to work?” Because it’s CG plus hand-drawn animation on top, and because you have characters that come from different universes with completely different animation styles, really, until we saw the first lit frames very, very deep into the process, we didn’t know if we could actually pull this off.
AWN: Plus, it’s one thing to see you’re actually producing the desired visuals, but it’s another to know if those visuals actually propel the story properly with needed emotion and clarity.
CS: Exactly. Phil’s original script was truly a masterpiece. But, it was so ambitious that we weren’t sure we could pull it off and achieve all the original goals. Because the style was so new, we were really focused on whether or not we could convey the deep emotion of the script and really have the audience relate to the characters in an authentic way. That was where we weren’t sure this comic book coming to life would intertwine well with the screenplay. We were quite happy to finally see that the emotion and characters really came through, even with this style.
AWN: As we’ve seen animated features getting bigger and bigger in scope, we’ve seen more and more directing duos, but never a trio. Tell me about your dynamic working with the film’s three directors.
CS: Well, honestly, I know it sounds crazy to have three directors, but we could not have made this movie without all three of them. The animation, which was so hard, took four times longer than any other animated film, and required a tremendous amount of focus and attention. So, while one director would be in animation dailies, another director would be working with the story artists and layout, trying to work out the camera and intricacies of having so many characters on screen. We also had so many actors, recordings and script re-writes took up somebody’s time every day as well. It was really great fortune to have three incredibly talented, wonderful directors who all shared the ambition and the goals, but were able to divide and conquer when it came to the production. Honestly, I don’t think we would have been able to finish this movie without all three of them.
AWN: Is it fair to say that often, the producer ends up being the one adult in the room?
CS: [laughs] You said it, not me.
AWN: Well, you wear many hats. You’re a sounding board, at times a voice of reason, a voice of calm, a voice of caution, a voice of support. How do help make the tough decisions to ensure the film gets made on time and on budget?
CS: That’s an interesting question. I was very fortunate too to have Chris, and Phil, and Amy, and Avi -- we all worked together, in different ways, producing the film. Being the person there day to day in the trenches, my job as producer was really to make sure that everybody kept the big picture in mind. Animation is so specific and so intricate, that you can get become granular and get lost in a frame and in a sequence.
My job is always to remind everybody of the big picture, the big ideas, the big story that we’re trying to tell. I also work really hard to make sure that overall ambitions are feasible. It’s calming the studio, helping them to understand that what’s happening day to day is going result in a wonderful film. What I try to do is problem solve the big budget or scheduling issues before having to take it to the directors. I try to give them the opportunity to stay focused on the creative. Because, if they get caught up in the how, of how we’re going to pull this off, it can be really overwhelming for them. So, I try to help them focus on what is this movie, what is the story they’re trying to tell, while I carry the load and weight on my shoulders of how to pull this all off.
AWN: As I’ve heard it said many times, your job is not to say “No,” but rather, to say, “Yes, but…”
CS: Absolutely. I never want to say “No.” I want to try to figure out a way to say, “I understand what you’re trying to achieve, so let’s figure this out. It might not be exactly the way you think it’s going to happen, but we’ll find a way to make it happen.” We had such a huge crew, with so many talented people… that includes a whole crew of production managers and co-producers. It’s critically important that everybody shares the same vision because only then are you able to pull it off. I think another one of the important things to do as a producer is to make sure everyone understands what the movie is that the directors are trying to make. Everybody has to be in line and serve that same vision.
AWN: From talking to the directors as well as the head of animation, it sounds like one of the biggest challenges on this film was figuring out how to visualize a film that looked like a comic book, as well as how then to produce the extraordinary designs and multiple integrated styles of animation.
CS: Well, I agree that the biggest challenge was being able to pull off this visual style. Again, Justin Thompson is truly the most talented production designer I’ve ever worked with. The idea that we could make this movie feel like a comic book come to life was really just a crazy ambition three years ago. And as I said before, I don’t think we were ever really certain it would work and could sustain itself for a two-hour movie. Would you relate to the characters and feel engaged the whole time? Could we tell a story with a visual style that actually achieved the desired emotion? That was scary. There were a lot of sleepless nights with all of us wondering if we it was all possible. So, I think that was the greatest challenge for sure. Then, just trying to get everything that was in the script, in Phil and Chris’ minds, and in the directors’ minds, onto the screen, released on time, was another great challenge.
AWN: Was there a point where you were seriously worried, about a particular style of animation, or a particular sequence or scene, that you were committed to, where there was doubt as to whether or not you would successfully pull it off?
CS: Yes, there were a couple of those moments. Some of the action at the end of the movie was so ambitious…we were working really hard to show an audience something they’d never seen before, what it would look like with six worlds colliding, six different dimensions and animation styles. That went down to the wire in terms of having the choreography all come together. That was probably the most challenging sequence, the final action, making sure that it read on screen as a whole scene.
AWN: On a different note, Sony has made some significant moves in recent years regarding gender diversity, led, by Kristin Belson and Pam Marsden, not just in animation production, but in executive and creative leadership. But, certainly, the industry has a way to go in this regard. Do you feel any additional pressure as a woman in your role as a producer on such a big, risky and highly visible film like this?
CS: I’ve had the good fortune of producing movies for people and studios who are incredibly supportive of women and believe in diversity. I think Kristine and Pam are such strong, brilliant women and I love that they have given me this opportunity, and other female producers at Sony Animation. The truth is, I don’t feel more pressure than I think anyone else does because I’ve always felt pretty supported. I do love the idea of supporting other women, bringing them up in the ranks and really trying to balance out a crew with women as well as men. Animation is still pretty male dominated in terms of production design, directing, animation and storyboarding, and we’re really trying hard to change that by bringing in more women. That’s what we can do as women in these positions, and that’s really important. I know that’s something Pam and Kristine are really focused on as well. You know, Phil and Chris, frankly, as producers, and Amy Pascal and Avi Arad, helping usher in those types of changes is something we all care quite a good deal about.
AWN: Hopefully, one day that question won’t be necessary in an interview like this. I do think strides are being made because of active support for change by people in positions like yours.
CS: I think so. I hope so. I hope that that’s true, and I agree with you, I hope we get to a point where it’s not a question. But it still is. I do think the industry’s getting better, but I think it’s good to draw attention to it as you do, because the more people do talk about it the more normal it becomes.
AWN: Last question…with all the challenges and difficulties you encountered working to tell Phil’s original story, is this the film you’d hoped to make? Does this meet your expectations from three long years ago?
CS: I am beyond happy, and honestly, this film has exceeded expectations. I still bring it back to Phil’s original script, because it really was wonderful, and the heart and soul of this film were there back then. I feel so proud of this film, of the incredible group of artists who all came together. Every aspect of this film has exceeded my dreams.
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.