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Mike Lasker Breaks Down the Breakdown of ‘Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’ VFX

The visual effects supervisor on Sony Pictures Animation’s Oscar-nominated, VES and Annie Award-winning animated masterpiece discusses how artistic and technical innovations were pushed to the limit to take audiences into visual storytelling realms they’ve never experienced before.

This week, Sony Pictures Animation’s massively successful Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse added four new accolades to its already long list of achievements. At this past Wednesday’s 22nd Annual VES Awards, the Into the Spider-Verse sequel, directed by Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers, and Justin K. Thompson, and written/produced by Phil Lord and Christropher Miller, took home four awards, including Outstanding Visual Effects in an Animated Feature. The film also took home seven wins, including Best Animated Feature and Best FX – Feature, at last Saturday’s Annie Awards. 

The film revisits Earth-1610 Spider-Man Miles Morales amidst a battle with new villain The Spot and a warm reunion with friend Gwen Stacy, who introduces Miles to the headquarters of Spider-Society. Like the groundbreaking animated feature that preceded it, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse continues to, well, break things as new characters are introduced along with a multitude of new animation techniques and styles. 

And with those techniques come new ways of doing visual effects. 

Leading up to the 96th Annual Academy Awards – in which Across the Spider-Verse is nominated for seven awards, including Best Animated Feature – AWN chatted with VFX Supervisor Mike Lasker about the most challenging scenes in the film, the ins and outs of overseeing visual effects on an entirely animated project, the uphill battle to produce “paintings” worthy of the Spider-Verse, and why this Spider-Man is the only film Lasker has worked on that he enjoys watching. 

The Academy Awards will take place on Sunday, March 10. Finals voting for the Oscars ends at 5 p.m. PT on Tuesday, February 27.

Check out the brand-new VFX breakdown reel from the film, then enjoy our interview:

Dan Sarto: I interviewed Kyle Odermatt, the VFX supervisor on Disney’s Wish, and he said, as the VFX supe, he's responsible for every animated pixel and, on an animated film as opposed to a live-action film, that's every pixel. Is that how you'd describe your role on Spider-Verse?

Mike Lasker: It's funny. Whenever I get asked what my role as the VFX supervisor is, I always say, “It's to bring the aspirations and dreams of the directors to life.” And what I love about animated movies is you are responsible for every pixel. It's like a big painting that you're going to create. And that's one of the reasons why I love animated films. I've done a lot of live-action projects, but I love being able to drive every ounce of the screen that there is and have that control. It's just more things to create.

DS: When you think of the analogous role on a live-action film, it just feels much more proscribed with regards to what that person's responsible for. But my understanding, on animated films, it's not just, “We're responsible for the effects.” Your responsibility ends up being, “How are we going to get this done digitally?”

ML: That's definitely fair to say. There are so many parts that you have to figure out how to get done. I think on these stylized movies, you have to take on some of the responsibilities that are typically done by a production designer or art director. In my role, I did a lot of my own art direction because there was so much to do to get this movie done. It was very long. We had our schedule, and I shared a lot of those responsibilities, which, again, I loved.

In the end, the movie is one big visual effect, and a lot of people don't get that. It's a big, long project. It's like a ship or a train; you just have to push to the finish line.

DS: With everybody getting behind it and putting their shoulders in to help. 

ML: Right. Exactly.

DS: Correct me if I'm wrong, but I would imagine, because the studio is coming off of the first film, that at least some of the hard work was already done when it came to building confidence that you all could push this wonderful story along, make an audience look where the directors wanted them to look, and absorb all of this in a way that wouldn’t be overwhelming, confusing, or just too stimulating?

ML: So, I was on the project for three years. When I started, it was pretty early on, and obviously we had done Into the Spider-Verse. We knew about 40 to 50 percent of the new movie would be in Miles' world, but it had been a few years since we did the first one and we had to bring things back to life to some degree. And it wasn't like everyone just remembered exactly how to do the first one, because there had been a show for everyone in between the films. So, we had to improve our tools and reteach ourselves how to make that look.

For the other universes, I knew there were going to be five other universes, but they weren't completely fleshed out yet. We knew Gwen's world was going to be a wet-on-wet medium and very watercolor. We knew they really liked the Jason Latour comic covers, so we knew the bones of the look. But, in these films, there's so much collaboration and back and forth with the art department and the effects to figure out what the end result was going to be, because it's so hard to find something definitive. And what I always ask the filmmakers whenever I can is “Can you give me a painting to define the look of the picture, the final style of what you want the world to look like?” because we want to be able to break it down. What are our hurdles? What do we need to figure out?

So, we do test shots. We do experiments. We give them back renders. We try to bring that painting to life. For all the universes, it's a collaborative process to find the endgame. And it was like that in the first film for Miles' look. When I first came on that movie, we had great paintings that we replicated, but in the end, we found sort of a more evolved look that worked in movement and production quality. Just because you bring a painting to life doesn't mean it's ready to be on the big screen. So, it's an exploration and that's very challenging for everybody. You need to be willing to experiment, fail, and succeed. It's not just going to be easy.

DS: You earn every shot. 

ML: Yes. And you need to work with people who are invigorated by that, who love the art, who love the experimentation, because finding these looks is hard. And then you get into the movie and it's not like one look fits everywhere. It's not like one frame of Gwen's world is what we do the whole time. Every shot is different because we are treating them like paintings. So, it's a process that keeps going, keeps changing, and you have to be flexible, and willing to relearn and conquer challenges because there are challenges the whole way. 

There is not one easy shot in the movie. Everything is hard.

DS: Now, when you're doing something so groundbreaking, how do you even know if you’re going to be able to get where you want to go? I mean, it's one thing to reverse engineer and say, “That’s the goal and we think we can get there.” But that's different than, “Can we get there? Well, we'll know if we get there." 

ML: I think so much of it comes down to working in parallel with the visdev and the art departments. We get the reference. We create test shots. We very quickly try to show these departments what we're doing, and then they react, and they bounce back ideas. And by traveling together like that, you start to know if you're going to be able to get to the end goal or not.

There were some concerns about the looks of some of the universes, that maybe this isn't the best idea. Maybe it's not going to have a good enough production value. Are we going to make it look complex enough? But you try to work as quickly as you can with simple tests. You start with still frames, then you move the camera, but it's a gamble. And you don't always know if you have the confidence. I mean, we definitely had more confidence on the second movie after having done the first one. There's a lot of the same people, this collection of artists who bring all these ideas to the table who wanted to make great art.

But it is hard to describe. It's really bouncing back and forth and saying, "Okay, we like that. We don't like that. Let's try that." And it's just this moving process. But there were concerns and it's a gamble. And even the first movie was a gamble. We didn't know if people were going to like it at all.

DS: It’s funny to have these conversations after something has come out and is successful. I remember back to my interview with Joaquim in June and asking him, “When was the first time you actually thought to yourself, we've got something special?” Because no one takes that for granted.

ML: And he was looking at a test shot. It was a review session on this test shot of Miguel in this 2099 city that we built. And it wasn't our final asset. They were just simple buildings. But he's coming down, he's clawing the side of this building, and he has his wingsuit that opens up and he swoops down and jumps on top of this car and the car is swerving around. We worked on this test shot for months because we were figuring out brushing. We were figuring out line work and how the city deconstructed as it went back.

We waited to show that shot until I thought it was ready. And when we showed it, I remember Joaquim saying, "This is aspirational." He was so excited, and we were excited because it was starting to come together. And if you can make a simple scene like that look good, you know that once you have the final assets with buildings, with tons of detail and the final characters and everything, that it's just going to look great. 

DS: When we talk about the Spider-Verse, and I remember this so distinctly starting with the first film, we talk about breaking the tools, breaking the pipeline, and just overall, lots of breakage. That became a theme. And this second one is a long film, and obviously, visually, with all the different worlds, it's a humongous film. What did you guys learn on the first one that let you be this adventurous?

ML: Well, when we talk about breaking the pipeline, I think that really refers to two things. The first one is your mentality. There was a breaking down of how we thought we could do animated films. And we broke down our minds and rebuilt how we would do every aspect of filmmaking. We had to reinvent everything: depth of field, optical effects, how we dial look dev on skin, hair, and eyes. 

And then the other thing was having to build all new tools and having hurdles to get over and constantly not being able to rely on principles we've relied on for years. The fact that nothing was easy meant you couldn't take anything for granted. The way an iris in an eye looks, we would have a completely new style for that, which required a tool.

So, on the first film, between breaking down how we thought about it and breaking down how our pipeline and our toolset worked, then rebuilding it back up, really allowed confidence to come through for the second one, because I had the same core team. We were a close, cohesive team of artists and innovators and, especially after Mitchells vs. the Machines, which pushed style in a different way, it just gave us confidence to know that we would be able to really build the tools to hit the look.

And for the second film, it was less breaking the pipeline. It was more building on the already broken pipeline for the first film. And you pick up momentum. It's like a snowball coming down a mountain, which gets bigger. The more you work, the more you develop; it leads to more things to figure out and it just expands.

DS:  Now speaking of effects, what were some of the main sequences or main types of things that you did across the film that were even more difficult than the really difficult stuff?

ML: By far the highest degree of difficulty was brushstrokes, brushes, painterly environments. Gwen's world, I thought, was by far the hardest to do for a number of reasons. We had to build a brush stroking tool from the ground up that allowed artists to paint with their hands, to fill millions of brushes into a scene to make it look like a watercolor painting. We had to come up with our own depth of field styling. We had to make these brushes animated. And on top of all that, on top of creating paintings for Gwen's world, it's like a mood ring for Gwen. Her emotions drive the look of the scene. So, every shot was like a new painting.

Typically, when you light an animated film, you can build a rig and you can render out a sequence, then you can make shot adjustments, but it's going to sort of all sit together. Whereas in Gwen's world, every shot was different. So not only are you creating this painterly world, but the lighting setups and the colors and the color block were different for every shot. And we would get lighting keys from the art department for virtually every shot a lot of the times.

And when Gwen would have these emotional moments with her father near the beginning of the film and at the end of the film, every background would change, and we would have animating brushstrokes in the back when she would get really heated. We have a section of the Guggenheim sequence near the end when her and George Stacey, her dad, are having this emotional moment and the background deconstructs completely into just strokes and lines and simple shapes. We called it “Gwen Vision,” and it was probably the most heightened Gwen look of the film.

DS: I get the sense sometimes that because your mastery of the process kept growing, the ability to fix things later and later meant key creatives could just keep working on story longer and longer. How far into the production were you making substantive changes?

ML: I think part of the reason why Chris [Miller] and Phil [Lord]’s movies are so good is that they like to iterate. They like to go for as long as they can and find what serves the story the best. I think what was good is we had gotten things into shape where we could do new versions of things much more quickly by the end. There was a sequence that we added near the end of production that ended up being the end of the film. That was an idea that came late in the game. The movie ended one way, and then we added the sequence where Gwen arrives and she recruits the team and she decides, “We're going to go find Miles.”

And at the time we were like, "Oh, this is like 20 shots we're going to do in the last couple of months." But it made such a difference to the movie and the artists took it on and it was this exhilarating thing at the end. But things do get pushed very late. 

But I'd say most of the artists knew it was a collaborative environment. They knew we were all in this together and everyone pulled together and got it done, and I think it served the movie. And I'm really thankful that they added that sequence to the end because I love rewatching it. This is the only movie that I can actually watch that I've done and enjoy it. 

Dan Sarto's picture

Dan Sarto is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Network.