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Nailing the Unique, Stylized Animation of ‘What If…?’

Animation Supervisor Stephan Franck talks about how the production’s creative ‘toys’ were all employed to mix 2D and 3D effects, backgrounds and characters into a visual style never seen before in Marvel Studios’ groundbreaking animated series, now playing on Disney+.

Since way back in 1991, when he worked as an assistant animator on the Steven Spielberg presentation An American Tail, Stephan Franck has been contributing his considerable artistic talents to the world of animation. Among his many well-known projects, he served as supervising animator and lead animator on The Iron Giant and Osmosis Jones, respectively, and more recently worked as an artist on such landmark films as Despicable Me, How to Train Your Dragon, Wreck-It Ralph, and the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Clearly, however, helping to bring the first animated Spidey to the big screen was just the beginning for Franck. In his latest incarnation as the animation supervisor for Marvel Studios’ first-ever animated series What If…? – which reimagines famous events from Marvel films in surprising ways – he had the opportunity to bring highly stylized life to Black Panther, Iron Man, Captain America, Nick Fury, Black Widow, Dr. Strange, and several dozen other better- and lesser-known denizens of the MCU.

Apart from the audaciousness of its storytelling, easily the most striking thing about What If…? is the mind-boggling mix of formats and techniques that somehow coalesce into a seamless style different from… well, just about anything else. Asked to break down the components and explain just how they were processed and integrated, Franck did the best he could.

“The fact is you can't look at it and go, ‘Oh, that’s made like this…” he begins. “It’s not as simple as saying, this is 2D and this is 3D, because different shots were being approached differently. We didn't limit ourselves. We tried to take advantage of all the toys that we had – 2D backgrounds, 3D backgrounds, a 3D character with a 2D look, 2D effects, 3D effects – and with the fact that the art direction is so strong, you can't tell where one stops and the other begins. That's the magic of it.”

Asked about how he managed this complex process, Franck first emphasizes the extreme competence and cooperativeness of the team, or what Production Designer Paul Lasaine referred to as “our little creative five-headed Hydra.”

“We were all completely holistically hand-in-hand, because nothing matters more than how what you’re doing will be used by the next person down the line,” he says. “So while everyone was, of course, in charge of their specialty, we were always asking, ‘What do you need? What can I do for you?’ It was such a cohesive team effort. It was just wonderful.”

With regard to the specific parameters of his own role, though, he allows that he was extremely hands-on. “There's hardly a shot in the whole season that I didn't draw over,” he recalls. “Whether for an acting choice or movements that I wanted to see pushed or made more natural, or maybe the spacing of some of the actions so the scene had more impact. I had great partners at the three studios we worked with, but I was very involved, shot by shot, frame by frame, making sure that the vision of the creators would be realized in the animation.”

In the same way that he had a hard time disentangling the various components and techniques that made up the whole, Franck was a little vague about the particulars of the testing process the team used in developing the show’s look. However, he distinctly remembers the moment when they’d nailed it.

“So, we're throwing pieces into the mix and, until you see it all together, you don't quite know what it is,” he says. “You're always waiting for this one shot that lets you know it's working. And I can tell you exactly when that was. It was in the first episode, when the German soldier comes out from behind the truck and walks through the headlights, rolling up his sleeves for a fight. And this was the first shot that we saw completely composited where we knew, okay, that's the show! All of us have talked about that often, this moment when we were all in the screening room and were like, okay, there's the show.”

Given the number of characters in the series, each of whom has their own established traits, as well as the scale and complexity of the action, it’s easy to imagine the kind of challenges faced by Franck and the team.

“We're showing stuff that you've never quite seen before in animation, all the physical stuff, all the battles,” he observes. “So of course, it tests the animators in new ways because we're trying to make the actions very credible and specific. Even some of the fighting styles that we're referencing are very specific, each character fighting in their own way. And so trying to capture the vibe, the specific vibe, and the specific physical actions, was probably what put the most demands on the animators.”

“You know, it's kind of new that we're able to tell these stories in animation,” he continues. “And these are the stories I've been wanting to tell for a long time. We really wanted it to feel as new and exciting on the outside as we already felt it was on the inside.”

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.