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‘The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story’ Allows New Talent to Shine

The creators of the new animated short, produced under the auspices of Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks’ LENS training program, talk about their unusual collaboration and the intricacies of the Spider-Verse.

From virtually – or possibly literally – the first time he appeared in a Marvel comic in 1962 (Amazing Fantasy #15), Spider-Man was beset by personal problems and existential issues that didn’t seem to crop up much in the lives of his fellow superheroes. Thus, while this historical continuity probably didn’t figure into the considerations of the creators of the new animated short film The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story, it’s particularly apt that the story centers on the hero’s psychological problems and his efforts to come to grips with what’s troubling him.

Featuring the voices of Shameik Moore and Brian Tyree Henry, The Spider Within, which had its premiere last June at Annecy and was just released on YouTube, finds hero Miles Morales struggling to balance his responsibilities as a teenager, friend, and student, while also acting as Brooklyn’s friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. After a particularly challenging day living with these pressures, Miles experiences a panic attack that forces him to confront the manifestations of his anxiety. Ultimately, he learns that reaching out for help can be just as brave an act as protecting his city from evil.

The Spider Within was produced by Michelle Raimo Kouyate and David Schulenburg for Sony Pictures’ LENS (Leading and Empowering New Storytellers) program, a new initiative intended to provide high-potential candidates from underrepresented groups with an opportunity to gain valuable leadership experience. Selected LENS candidates are brought into the roles of director, writer, VFX supervisor and animation supervisor, and charged with developing an animated short, while receiving unprecedented access to and mentorship by leaders at Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks via workshops and talks with seasoned crew members. The final deliverable is an all-original short film, set in the existing world of an upcoming feature produced by the two studios. The film was made in collaboration with the Kevin Love Fund, and will now be part of that program's new ‘The Hero Within’ mental health-focused school lesson plan. 

For the program’s maiden effort, the creative team consisted of director Jarrell Dampier, whose work as a story artist includes Young Justice, Invincible, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse; writer Khaila Amazan (Freeridge, The Horror of Dolores Roach, A Cuban Girl’s Guide to Tea & Tomorrow); VFX supervisor Clara Chan (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Over the Moon, Hotel Transylvania); and animation supervisor Joe Darko (Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, The Sea Beast, The Mitchells vs. The Machines).

In Annecy, we spoke with the four principals about their collaboration, and what it was like to be thrown together in the first iteration of a new creative undertaking (short answer: mostly exhilarating).

Enjoy the short, then read how the filmmakers approached the production.

AWN: Making a good short film, whether you're in the Spider-Verse or not, is a serious storytelling challenge, and you made a very good film, especially from a narrative perspective. Can you talk a little about how it started, and how you made fundamental decisions about the story? You opted to set it in an enclosed interior, but it could have been on a rooftop, it could have been running down the street, it could have been anywhere. How did you arrive at a starting point?

Jarelle Dampier: That's a great question. I feel like Khaila and I had the idea right away for what ended up on the screen. We were brought on first just to conceptualize, and we came up with that pretty much right out of the gate. We were very passionate about it, but we were also encouraged by our producers to think outside the box, think of some more ideas. We spent maybe a month coming up with the craziest Spider-Verse scenarios we could.

AWN: Were you drawing at the same time?

JaD: Some things, yeah. Khaila was writing out ideas, and I was sketching out ideas.

Khaila Amazan: Here's the funny part. I'm talking to him on Zoom, and he's sketching. That's how this guy is. He's literally seeing whether something hits his brain. We're going back and forth between meetings, and he's drawing different ideas from different angles, and thumbnailing.

JaD: You can't turn it off.

AWN: During the press event, you talked about how both of you are horror film fans. During the development process, were you just within the Spider-Verse world, or were you bringing in these other references?

KA: It was a very unusual process. The first part was recruiting, where they looked for talented underrepresented filmmakers. They found Jarrell. Then they found me separately, and they're like, "You guys are going to love each other." I'm like, "I don't know who this man is." Then they threw us together in a meet-and-greet Zoom.

A lot in the early stages wasn't Spider-Man-related. It was just like, what's your name? Where are you from? What do you like? That's when we started geeking about horror things. We both like Korean movies and Japanese horror. That’s how we found out we were on the same page.

He had read a pilot of mine called Black Anxious, which he really related to. I remember asking him, "What if we drew a parallel between Spidey senses and anxiety?" That's all anxiety is. It's your own personal Spidey senses going haywire. He was like, "What? I relate to that." Then he talked about how he had experienced a panic attack. We looked at each other, and we're like, "Wait a minute, are we passionate about horror and anxiety?" Wow. We love this idea. We pitched it to our lovely producers, Michelle Raimo Kouyate and David Schulenburg, and they were like, "Oh, wow, this is great, but just as protocol, do you have any other ideas?"

JaD: They wanted to make sure we weren't limiting ourselves.

KA: I think it helped to reinforce the fact that this was the best idea. We had a rom-com thing, and we were pulling from other movies. Ultimately the producers were like, "It seems like you're really passionate about this first idea," so we homed in on that. Then we pitched [Sony Pictures Animation President] Kristine Belson [Director of Creative] Jeremiah Loeb, who were so supportive. They didn't mind that it was horror. They didn't mind that it was something they hadn't seen in the Spider-Verse.

JaD: After that, everybody jumped in. All of this is so iterative, and it happens at the same time. I feel like when people read these things, they think there’s the writing, then the storyboards, and then the animation. The truth is that we were all on top of each other all the time. [Animation Supervisor] Joe Darko’s doing some animation. [VFX Supervisor] Clara Chan's coloring some things. Khaila's doing some rewrites. I'm storyboarding and doing layout with the layout artist. All these things are overlapping. It's just incredible how it works out.

KA: It's always moving ahead, but then two steps backward, three steps forward in little ways. They're like, "Khaila, can you change this line of dialogue?" Then, “Oh wait, we need to condense the whole movie...” My first draft was a little long and they wanted me to condense it, because that's the spirit of the short – it should be short – so we had to cut it down. A lot of that was actually done in layout, as we realized that the movie could take place in one area. But it was a filmmaking challenge being in that room.

AWN: Telling a close-up story is, in many ways, much more difficult than a more expansive landscape, which can provide a lot of your narrative just by traversing it. Joe and Carla, tell me a little bit about how you came into this and what your expectations were.

Joe Darko: Once I saw the storyboards, I started mentally calculating because I instantly fell in love with the first boards that I saw. They ended up being a little different from what we made in the end, but the essence was all there. Oftentimes in animation, when it goes to the 3D side, we end up cutting a lot of stuff because like, “Oh, you can't do that because it’s too expensive, blah, blah, blah.” But I loved this thing, and I wanted to be able to defend as much of it as I could. So immediately, while they were still working on the story, I identified all the segments that I thought were going to be technically challenging and started working on how to figure them out. By the time those conversations about having to cut things arose later on in production, I would be like, “Oh, don't worry, I've already figured that out.”

Clara Chan: For me, as VFX supervisor, I had to figure out what assets we needed. The original idea was that we couldn't build anything new, we had to reuse whatever we had from the movies. For Miles, we decided to use the model from the second movie, but we wanted to give him a different outfit. For his bedroom, because the second movie is still going through the legal process for all the posters, we had to use some of the old posters. There was a delay in the start of the production, so while Joe was doing animation tests, I did some lighting tests. I used the subway car and put the shadow figure in there and tried to come up with the look of this figure.

JaD: That changed everything. When I saw that, I felt like, this can be real. It was incredible. I remember that day very clearly.

KA: Joe and Clara really brought everything to life and made it feel very possible – because, for me, the challenge of taking a very small slice of the Spider-Verse and making it worthwhile felt so difficult. They were both so supportive in making it happen. They said yes more than no, and asked really good questions. They were the secret weapons of this whole operation.

JaD: I think it was really interesting brainstorming with Khaila before Joe and Clara came on board, but it was hard. I felt like I was trying to convey what it could be with my drawings that were done in 30 seconds. Once we saw their work, it just started to come together. They made sure we didn’t get lost in the woods, and kept us focused on the goal and the root of the story.

KA: And their pedigree is so high. They worked on the previous film, so they knew everything.

JaD: We got the Spider-Verse veterans.

KA: Yeah, exactly. They schooled us. They were like, “Oh, Miles would do this.” They taught us what we needed to know.

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.