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Fine-Tuning the Spider-Verse: A Chat with Justin K. Thompson

The co-director talks about his 'eye-bleeding' work on the visuals, and careful avoidance of excess wackiness, in Sony Pictures Animation’s acclaimed mega-hit 'Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,' now playing in theaters worldwide.

A bit more than three weeks after its release on June 2, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse has grossed more than $560 million worldwide and is among the best-reviewed movies of the year so far. The follow-up to 2018’s Oscar-winning animated feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, which redefined what a CG-animated movie could look like, the sequel has raised the ante yet again with its visual bravado and narrative innovations, while holding tight to the crucial emotional core of the story.

Directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, with a screenplay by Phil Lord & Christopher Miller & David Callaham, and a voice cast featuring Shameik Moore; Hailee Steinfeld; Brian Tyree Henry; Luna Lauren Velez; Jake Johnson; Jason Schwartzman; Issa Rae; Karan Soni; Daniel Kaluuya; and Oscar Isaac, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse is the second film in the planned Spider-Verse trilogy. It chronicles how, after reuniting with Gwen Stacy/Spider-Woman (Steinfeld), Brooklyn’s neighborhood Spider-Man Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) is catapulted across the Multiverse, where he encounters the Spider Society, a team of Spider-People charged with protecting the Multiverse’s very existence. But when the heroes clash on how to handle a new threat, Miles finds himself pitted against the other Spiders and must redefine what it means to be a hero so he can save the people he loves most.

In the second of our Across the Spider-Verse interviews (you can find our interview with Joaquim Dos Santos here), we spoke with Thompson, Dos Santos’ colleague and co-director, who, as Dos Santos glowingly and memorably described, shouldered much of the responsibility for the film’s final visual look.

AWN: When we spoke with Joaquim Dos Santos, he talked about how hard you worked – he used the expression “bleeding from the eyes” – to finalize some of the visual elements in the film, specifically the look of Mumbattan. Considering how stylized the movie is, and how many visual components there are, it’s not exactly surprising. In any case, it was clear he really appreciated your efforts.

Justin Thompson: Certainly my background as a production designer was a big help. To deal with the visuals from script to screen, and make sure all the craftsmanship is there – all the final touches and lighting and art direction, and to give everybody all the direction that they need to make sure that we get across the finish line, took some doing. While they're still trying to write the story, I'm trying to make sure that that stuff is going forward. And it all kind of came together almost simultaneously within a few days of when we had to put it in theaters. It's kind of amazing.

AWN: A lot of ground was broken in the first film, and I imagine it gave you the confidence to take a bigger step here, because of how much you learned about modifying your pipeline to create a new type of visual. From a design standpoint, how difficult was it to visualize not just how it was going to come together once you had it, but what you needed to create it to begin with?

JT: That's a such a good question. I would say the first movie definitely gave us the permission, the latitude that we needed, as you said, and the fans were hungry for more, so we knew we had that mandate. When we sat down, I think the main thing I wanted to do was make sure it supported Miles' story first. And so we just thought about what we would need on his journey to make him feel like a fish out of water. What would we need to make him feel like it's scary when it's supposed to be scary, and what would work when it's supposed to be an uplifting, happy moment? We just thought about it in really broad terms.

I don't really work in a way where I sort of close my eyes and see the whole film before me. I see more of an initial pass, where I get an impression of it. And then, just as I did on the first movie, I start challenging my own perceptions regarding what are clichés, and what has been done before, and I keep trying to look deeper and deeper into things that I've seen and experienced. What does a morning look like? What does a sunset really look like at specific times of day, and specific times in specific parts of the country? Trying to draw on real experiences that were less common in not just animation, but film in general.

Also, just trying to find something that felt like a really unique specific moment. We did iteration upon iteration, and the guiding light was always trying to feel like you started off in a place with Miles, where you could kind of paint this ground floor, this realistic world. I decided we needed to put even more detail into this world than we did even in the first film, because I wanted you to believe it was a world that existed and that could be lost. And I wanted people to feel like it was a world they recognized and that they could live in. So we actually put in probably 10 times more detail and information.

Then the other guiding light was the comic books themselves. You've probably heard this a lot, but we looked at very specific moments in the Spider-Gwen comics, in Spider-Man 2099, in Spider-Man: India, and we said, "Let's exaggerate that." We took our cues from the artists working on those projects. Instead of asking “what would I do?,” we asked how the artists in those comic books would express, say, grief or joy in those universes.

And so that became the jumping-off point for the different universes in terms of color and lighting and texture, because I wanted audiences to feel like they had stepped into those comic books. I wanted them to feel like a kid at the comic book stand looking at them all lined up and imagining jumping from one comic book cover to the next, and really feeling the change.

It was a long, long process. I would say we remade the movie at least five times from start to finish. There were some sequences we remade a good 20 times before we really got it right.

AWN: It's not just that you had different worlds in which your characters did their stuff. Those were art-directed environment in a certain sense, and they were always in flux. That must have put so much more pressure on you as filmmakers, having to determine not just what the elements were going to be shown, what it was going to look like, but how they were going to serve the story.

JT: Well, it’s a unique feature of comic books that they act like mood rings with regard to what's going on in each panel – they change colors. They'll be red in one panel and green in another, and that's the quickest way they can show emotion. So we kind of embraced that comic-book philosophy. But, also, in all my favorite films, it's not unusual for the environment to be a subtext and externalize whatever is going on inside the characters – whether we're talking about Stanley Kubrick or David Lean or David Fincher or Alejandro Iñárritu. They’re directors all the time and cinematographers all the time.

Production designers manipulate the audience way more than they often realize, because it can be realistic in its presentation and it can be very subtle. But if you look at Fincher, or you look at Kubrick in The Shining, the things that they're doing are quite obvious. In Iñárritu’s Bardo, there’s an incredible amount of beautiful illustrative manipulation that's going on behind the camera, behind the characters, to make you feel something that the characters aren't actually saying. The image itself can be powerful enough to say everything that the character needs to say without a single word. Having the resources to do that was a dream come true for me. I think we were able to accomplish that in some of the sequences in this film, which I'm really proud of.

AWN: We already talked about the last-minute efforts expended to perfect the color and other aspects of the visuals in the days before the movie’s release. Were there other things that you would characterize as major challenges? What were the biggest things that kept you up at night?

JT: The biggest challenge for me on this film – which relates to what we were just talking about – was making sure it wasn’t overwhelmed by the visuals. Was it getting too wacky and would people lose a connection to the emotional storyline? Would all this art and all this painterly-ness, or all the line work or paper texture – we were using punk rock posters and whatever else we could find to express a character or a dimension – would it overpower or undermine whatever the characters were feeling emotionally?

And there were times it did, and we had to pull it back from the edge – go just over the edge and then take one step back – so that it wouldn't overwhelm and it wouldn't overshadow. Because I think what makes Across the Spider-Verse such a fun movie, and what made it such an incredibly fun movie to make, is that we had this amazing support for risk-taking and being daring and trying new things. But the whole time, we kept saying to each other, "We have to remember to hold onto the emotion." Because as soon as we lose that, we'd lose the audience.

So I think what we did well, and what I'm most proud of, is that through all the crashing and bashing, through all the big spectacle, all that popcorn action, you can actually feel what the characters are feeling and you know where to look. And there were times when I was nervous, and I would call Kemp and Joaquim into the room and ask, "Am I going too far?" And sometimes they would say, "Not far enough." And other times, "Yeah, yeah, let's pull it back a little bit. We're losing the thread."

From a technical standpoint, there were times when I was really nervous that we wouldn't have enough computational power to really make it look like a painting or a drawing, and that we were just going to run out of time. And a couple of times I almost said, "All right, let's just do something else that we know works because we're running out of time." But I kind of held on with my fingernails, and the [Sony Pictures] Imageworks crew was incredible in what they were able to do and create. I'm glad that I got through those nervous jitters, because I'm really proud of the entire crew and what they were able to do. It became so much larger and more beautiful than I think even I had ever expected it to be.

Jon Hofferman's picture
Jon Hofferman is a freelance writer and editor based in Los Angeles. He is also the creator of the Classical Composers Poster, an educational and decorative music timeline chart that makes a wonderful gift.