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The Forward-Looking, Retro Visual Style of ‘What If…?’

Head of Visual Development and Character Design Ryan Meinerding talks about early twentieth-century influences for the character designs in Marvel Studios’ acclaimed new animated series, now playing on Disney+.

To say that Ryan Meinerding is no stranger to the Marvel Cinematic Universe would be a considerable understatement. From his first work as an illustrator on Iron Man in 2008, through his long tenure as head of visual development at Marvel Studios, Meinerding has been among those most responsible for the look and feel of the MCU. He headed character design on Iron Man 2, worked on concept design for Thor and Captain America, and was instrumental in defining the big-screen appearance of numerous other iconic characters, including the Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, Doctor Strange, Spider-Man, and Black Panther.

As head of visual development and character design for Marvel Studios’ first animated series What If…?, Meinerding faced a new set of challenges that were essentially the reverse of his previous accomplishments. Instead of having to transform the 2D comic book characters into their live-action avatars, he was now faced with the task of reimagining his flesh-and-blood creations as believable and compelling animated figures. 

Meinerding explored a variety of styles for inspiration, including the work of the twentieth-century American artist Norman Rockwell and the contemporary French photographer Thomas Lavelle. In particular, he cites the influence of J. C. Leyendecker, who was among the most important American illustrators of the early twentieth century and has been credited with inventing modern magazine design.

“There are a number of design elements in J. C. Leyendecker’s artwork that can translate into something that's animatable,” Meinerding explains. “For me, one of the most useful things is he created monumental characters. He created characters that looked larger than life, which is essentially what Marvel does as well. So, it’s worth going back in time and looking at his artwork and asking, how did he create these monumental characters?”

“For example, how many heads tall were the characters?” he continues. “How do we evoke that sense that they look like they were sculpted to stand outside and stand the test of time? We looked at the proportional systems, the faces, how he designed rim lights, how he as a painter used line work in his art. And we were trying to distill all of those things into a style that would represent the MCU characters as best we could.”

The overall challenge, Meinerding observed, which is the case with any creative pipeline, is to find the optimal solutions for your specific demands, while still remaining true to your original inspiration. He offered the specific example of figuring out how to get line work that actually looks illustrated.

“How do you start with a 3D form so that you can stay on model,” he says, “but then use the line work to really make it feel a little bit flatter? And how do you use the rim light in a way that doesn't feel like you're pushing it all the way to the back of the head, so it's not complicated? We're trying to pull that all the way around the front. So, you have to deal with these intricate and complex shapes that hit the face, and you have to be excited about it in a design sense, as Leyendecker would have been.”

He goes on, “If you look at Leyendecker’s art, he put highlights in places, like under the nose, where no one else does. Like, no one says, you know, the best place to put a highlight is under the nose. And we weren't necessarily trying to execute that, but it was more like the idea of being okay with its being complicated in a 2D sense, so that we could have elements to work with and design around.”

In developing the look for What If…?, Meinerding found that not only his past experience, but his variety of skills and enthusiasms, greatly facilitated the process.

“Fortunately, I love to paint – digital painting is what I do for the films – and I also love to draw,” he says. “So, I was able to look at these things as 2D concepts and find the line work and the graphic approach that was going to flatten the characters enough for them to not look like a more generic 3D show. I also come out of a background of doing 3D and doing sculpts for the basis of a character. I had a lot of fun not only doing the 2D design, but also doing some of the sculpts for the 3D and working with my team to get those as polished as possible.”

Another source of fun for Meinerding was the open-endedness of the show’s conceit, the endless possibilities that the multiverse creates. At the same time, the fact that there are well-known existing storylines, as well as very specific kinds of divergences, provided a firm foundation for moving forward.

“So, for example, we have what Dr. Strange looks like,” he offers. “We have to run him through the style, and figure out cool shapes, and make him work with an animated scenario. But then if we go down the road of making him evil, you suddenly have a really firm place to start from, and you have a really strong, conceptual direction. That's just fun for me. I mean, that's the ideal in working in entertainment – telling stories in which the visual for your character is firmly rooted in the concept. And hopefully that means you're going to end up with iconic results. Anyway, that's what we were striving for.”

What If…? is now streaming on Disney+.

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.