Sony Pictures Animation head of character animation Josh Beveridge helps bring comic books to the big screen with a hand-crafted illustrative visual style that breaks all the rules of traditional CG.
What if you were given carte blanche to make an animated movie not just based on a comic book, but with the stylized look and “feel” of a comic book? And, what if that comic book centered on a radically different Spider-Man universe that introduced a teenage kid from Brooklyn named Miles Morales as a completely new and contemporary hero? For the filmmaking team of Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, best known as directors of Sony Pictures Animation’s Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, The LEGO Movie and the 21 and 22 Jump Street films, the opportunity to tell an alternative Spider-Man story in a revolutionary new way was one they couldn’t pass up; their new film, the extraordinarily engaging and visually stunning fully animated web-slinger action-adventure, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, hits theatres this Friday.
For the production team at Sony Pictures Animation as well as Sony Pictures Imageworks, that opportunity, that underlying premise of creating an animated film that felt like a comic book, became their mission as they set out to recreate both the graphic look and print-style feel of old-style, 1960s Spider-Man comic-books. The task was both daunting and exhilarating at the same time. How do we bend the rules of state-of-the-art CG animation production technology to visualize not just one, but six different brand-new Spider-Man universes and Spider-People, never represented on film, no one exactly the same, all at some point having to overlap and integrate into the same reality? How do we combine CG with hand-drawn animation techniques to make an animated film that doesn’t look like anything audiences have ever seen before?
For the filmmakers, that meant breaking the traditional CG rules and developing a new, unique visual language, rich in stylistic elements, shapes, colors and movement, where the hand of the artist is visible in every frame, and where the hand-drawn look of 2D animation is integrated with and made art directable within the volumetric world of 3D CG. The opposite of photorealism. Pushing CG tools to make the imagery and characters feel more snappy, more illustrative. It also meant assembling the largest team of animators the studio has ever employed, over 170 artists, with nine leads, working primarily in Vancouver, with some located in Culver City, all needed because the show’s technical complexity pushed their typical weekly work output from four seconds of animation down to only one.
For head of character animation Josh Beveridge, that meant a complete rethink of how he and the animation team approached character movement and the visual style of the action, moving away from the more traditional CG animation techniques he’d used on Sony films like Open Season, Surf’s Up, Cloudy 1 and 2, Arthur Christmas and Hotel Transylvania 1 and 2.
“Our big challenge was creating that balance between looking cartoony and realistic,” he notes. “To deliver the best representation of comic books to animated life, we had to break and overhaul our way of looking at things. We did about a year of testing, developing a couple test shots on what we thought would be some of the most challenging areas to solve. We didn’t have an absolutely clear idea of what the character designs were, or even what the movie was going to be about. It was just look testing, and it helped us prove many of our visual ideas. We wanted it to all hang on the same singular concept: bring a comic book to life. So, our boundaries were, don’t emulate reality and don’t make it a cartoon. It’s somewhere in the middle that picks from both of those aesthetics.”
According to Beveridge, comic books and animation go hand in hand. “Animation is such a sister medium to comic books,” he explains. “They’re both mediums where you can tell any kind of story. You’re not limited to only one type of visual. They’re both absolutely whatever you envision them to be. They’re only bound by the limitations of an artist’s imagination. They embrace visuals that can’t exist in reality. Our mission was to make the audience feel like they were reading a comic book while watching the film -- make the film feel like a comic book come to life. That opened us up to all kinds of challenges and opportunities to problem solve and rethink how we normally produce animation. Are we just doing something that way because we’re used to doing it that way? Is there another way?”
For the production team, the search for a workable design language and animation style, that could properly convey the story’s emotions, led to some daring but risky decisions. “Testing new approaches freed us up to get a little trippier and little bit bolder,” Beveridge continues. “That meant we were going to make this world and our characters look more graphic. Everything would have a texture that looked a little bit like a deconstructed graphic, with hard edges, that had to feel like it’s made out of ink, to remind people of a comic book medium. That led us to determine that nothing could be soft. Everything had to be crisp. It had to feel like it was carved in print. It had to snap!”
From tests and visual design studies, two major decisions were made: no motion blur, and the animation would primarily be done on twos. Motion blur is a technique where you blend frames to simulate the dynamic blurring that a camera catches when objects move rapidly. A more traditional CG animated film is animated on ones -- 24 images, each held for one frame, for every one second of film. Animating on twos means every image is held for two frames, with only 12 individual images used for every one second of film. The impact on how movement, especially fast-paced action, is animated is tremendous. But it provided the desired illustrated visual style for the film, where each frame appeared as its own distinct image, like a panel in a comic book. And its own distinct challenges for the animators.
“Turning off motion blur meant we had to move characters differently, because one of the things that really betrays this aesthetic is when things are smooth,” Beveridge recounts. “Computers make perfect arcs that you could never draw. You can tell a machine is solving more than the artist is. And that led us to the decision to animate the film on twos, primarily. We made it so that every animator could go in and out of being on twos in every moment, based on what they felt was best for that particular performance.”
Having the option to move between animating on ones or twos gave the animation teams tremendous creative freedom. “One of the animation tricks we learned on this film was to never just do one trick, to always be changing the trick,” Beveridge continues. “There’s no hard and fast rule on how to animate… only use this one particular technique. We just wanted to keep people on their toes and keep them guessing. There’s never a technical limitation of what we had to do. It was always a creative choice of whether or not the character was on twos and how that would solve for the camera. It just was a feeling we were chasing.”
Another feeling the teams were chasing was the distinctive line work, especially in faces and motion, that exemplified the comic book graphic style. According to Beveridge, while some of the ink lines were built into the rigs, much of the line work involved individual artistic decisions on manual placement. “For most of the movie, the majority of the characters from Miles’ and Peter’s universe had a lot of ink lines already built into the rig. But we also built in all kinds of tools for every animator to add ink lines, hand placed in 3D space, because it turns out there’s more exceptions to the rule than rules themselves for where they belong,” Beveridge observes.
“And then, by not having motion blur, we had to lean on old school, traditional hand-drawn animation techniques,” he continues. “So, a lot of the movie is even more entertaining when you frame through it and see the fast actions happening, how we solved spacing between two poses with floating limbs and deconstructed edges, little eroded action lines, like those two streaks from a comic book. Even the lighting team found an offset print technique for making trailing edges. Again, the goal being everything needs to be crisp and clear. Like pop art.”
Creating the film’s distinctive line work was truly a group effort. “For line work, every department played a different part,” Beveridge remarks. “There’s no one group that handled line work. So, emotional acting lines, yes, those were built in to the rig. We had ways of adding more for the exceptions. We controlled a lot in animation. But then the effects department built a really cool system for making drawn lines track on form edges, ones that don’t really describe the acting but describe the shape of things. Like a nose or a jaw line, you always need those, but they’re not acting lines. They have really clear iconography, so effects owned lines like that. Then the comp team found all of these ways to edge detect and make them all integrate. So, everyone was adding a different piece to the puzzle. With all of these different ingredients, none of them are the same; there’s no one trick. It’s constantly changing.”
Beveridge also noted that the production didn’t use toon shading like some might suspect. “We didn’t use a toon shader, though there’s definite parallels. Some folks would probably describe it that way. We wanted the production value to be obvious that a lot of the film was really hand crafted. There wasn’t a shader that just did all the solving for us. There were really, really complex shaders, but those were always changing and being hand dialed for different solutions as well. So, that’s an ingredient too. But there was no silver bullet.”
One of the film’s highlights is the stylistic action posing of the Spider-People. “Each of the film’s Spider-People were designed to be part of the same family without any direct reference to a particular artist’s style,” Beveridge comments. “And what makes them Spider-People are the acute angles their limbs strike, these straight, aggressive angles. Spider-People are unique from other heroes in that they’re low center-of-gravity characters. They’re always in this somewhat hunched arch. Instead of having their center of gravity in a puffed-up chest -- how high and tall they can be -- they’re low, they’re wide-base and stable. So, whether a Spider-Person is young, a veteran, a pig or an anime girl, they all have the same low center of gravity when they’re in their action mode.”
For Beveridge, the sheer enormity of the project was the biggest challenge. “This was such a massive undertaking,” he concedes. “The amount of work, the number of characters, was enormous. Personally, for me, one of the big challenges was just how high our goals were. We were shooting for the stars, trying to make the most impressive thing any of us could imagine. Not only that, but the complexity was incredibly high. And we didn’t want to leave anything on the table, so we were working on this right up to the bitter end. And, the choice to animate without motion blur, on twos, with several different visual aspects all in one movie, were all big risks. There was no example we could point to that showed, ‘Yes, this will work because of this.’ So that was an emotional challenge, because it was risky, knowing how high the stakes were and how many people cared about this film. It felt like a massive responsibility. So, we didn’t want to disappoint. There are a lot of strong opinions out there. We knew people were paying attention.”
Ultimately, Beveridge concludes, the reward of seeing such a fantastic early response to the film makes the inherent risk that much more worthwhile. “One of the lessons I’m taking away after completing this project is that in art, it’s a really good thing to not be sure if you’re making the right choices. It means you’re doing something bold. So, for a lot of us, we didn’t know how good what we were doing was or how people were going to respond. It was a risk. You live with that fear. So, to get the response we’ve gotten so far, is kind of incredible.”
Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.