'Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse' Directors Explain Creating The Film's Unique Look [Interview]

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is, in my estimation, the best Spidey story put on film so far. It's full of jaw-dropping action, it introduces audiences to a new version of Spider-Man while paying tribute to the ones that have come before, and opens up a whole universe of terrific supporting characters. It's emotional, hilarious, and an innovative visual triumph; who would have guessed that an animated Spider-Man story would be one of the best movies of 2018?

Late last month, I sat down with directors Bob Perschietti (The Little Prince), Peter Ramsey (Rise of the Guardians), and Rodney Rothman (writer of 22 Jump Street) to talk to them about the technical reasons their movie looks so incredible, how they collaborated to bring this story to life, racing to hit the release date, and much more.

Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse Interview

This interview was conducted on November 29, the morning after the first reactions arrived online and a few minutes after Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse won Best Animated Film at the New York Film Critics Circle Awards, so the guys were in good spirits when I spoke with them as their first interview of the day.

For me, and maybe for some of our readers, we instantly know this movie is unlike anything we've ever seen before. But I've sort of been struggling to accurately describe the animation style. Can you pinpoint what you did specifically to give it such a special look?

Ramsey: Hired this man! (points at Persichetti, laughs)

Persichetti: Oddly enough, we struggle too trying to simplify it. At its core, we took the idea of traditional hand-drawn animation and the rules of that, and then took CG animation and blended them together. That's the super simple version of it. A little deeper in the weeds is that we had these characters modeled based off of drawings, and then once we did that, we realized some of the really expressive parts of the designs were actually the line work. We went in and figured out a way to draw line work on top of these characters three dimensionally, and then that line work could accept light if it needed to, or not.

Then the final thing that really makes it feel a lot different is, there's 24 frames a second in film, and in all CGI right now, there's a new image for every frame of movement. In traditional hand-drawn animation, you only needed twelve drawings to fill it up because your eye can't catch that little – you can hold a drawing for two frames, but if you hold a drawing for three, your eye can kind of catch the fact that it's being held. So we stripped out everything, we animated this on twos, and they had to write a bunch of new algorithms and things to try to make up for the lost simulations of all that stuff, like hair and cloth. But it really just makes it feel crunchy and crispy and –

Ramsey: Poppier.

Perschetti: Yeah, and poppier. And you get really strong posing. And then the final little reason why it's so crisp is that there's not one frame of motion blur anywhere in the movie. That's in every movie now. Even live-action with CG VFX, they put motion blur on it because it just helps soften it, and we were just looking for something that felt a little more punchy.

Rothman: Yeah, that approach basically makes the compositions stronger – or at least, that's the goal. Another way we talk about it is that it's basically combining CG animation, 2D hand-drawn animation, comic book art, and street art. We're trying to combine them into something that feels unified.

Spider-Man into the Spider-Verse panel

For sure. The pacing of the film is incredible. I feel like it really flies, but I still feel like I got a great look into Miles' family life along with all of the fun action. Can you talk about striking that balance?

Ramsey: Yeah, that was job one. Even beyond finding a unique look. It was like, well, the look's not going to mean anything unless you're following the experience of the main character in a way that's going to carry you through the movie and keep you engaged from his particular point of view. Especially when you're talking about multiple universe, you've got multiple Spider-Men, the real job was how do we keep it Miles' story? Because for us, the charm of it and the heart of it was all about Miles. The triangle that he's in with his father and his uncle and the idea that his family experience really is what makes him unique and different from Peter Parker or other iterations of Spider-Man we've seen. So how do we build out from there and keep everything that happens from his experience?

Earlier this year, I was at a Q&A where Phil Lord described you as, and I'm paraphrasing, the action guy (Ramsey), the comedy guy (Rothman), and the poet (Persichetti). Did you each approach this project from that angle? What was the collaboration like between you three on this?

(all laugh)

Persichetti: The thing that was interesting is that three directors...this movie needed all three of us, and this movie wouldn't exist in its form without all three of us. It was a really special circumstance where each one of us, we all have different skills – some skills overlap, some don't – but really, we had a creative collaboration that just gelled. And we had no time to make it not work, because we had to finish the movie and we were always on the same page, and if there were any creative differences, we would work them out in editorial. I think we were just really complimentary to each other.

Rothman: It's kind of an exchange of skills. But there is overlap, though. On one hand, I definitely brought more experience with comedy into the collaboration, but it's not like I could point at stuff and say to people, "Oh, this is funny. Don't worry about it." We know if something's funny or not! I had something to offer visually, but I certainly didn't have the same vocabulary to express it as these guys did, and I certainly didn't have the same experience. So a lot of times I would have to talk about what I thought it should feel like or look like, and then look at Bob or Peter and be like, "Now, how would I say that in a way that a genius animator could [understand]?" So personally, I learned a lot in the process, but I think all of us would say that in the end, there was a real overlap in what we were doing, and that was the only way it could work.

Ramsey: I was going to say the overlap between what we do is what made it work, because that brings in sensibility, it brings in taste, it brings in tone, style, everything. Yeah, they like to think of me as the action guy because I worked on a lot of action stuff back in my live-action days, but some of the greatest action in this movie, Bob conceived. It's just mind-boggling. And poetry, Rodney brought tons and tons of that to his scenes. I don't know what I did. (laughs) But I look at the movie, and I can really see all of our fingerprints throughout.

Persichetti: Historically, for animated films, there are oftentimes directing teams and oftentimes they literally break the film apart into sequences and one director has these and another director has these. It definitely was not that for us.

Was there one scene that changed the most from conception through execution?

Ramsey: Was there one scene that didn't? (laughs)

Rothman: I'm trying to think of what would be the emblematic scene...basically any sequence could qualify for what you're talking about. Because things change and iterate repeatedly for years as you kind of boil things down to the essence of what you're trying to do.

One thing that does pop to mind is, there's a scene where Peter and Miles, right after they first meet, they're walking up and down buildings while they talk. That's an example of something that changed, because you had a scene that was basically what we would call a "pipe" scene. It's a scene that has to communicate expository plot. And as it evolved, we started to try to think about, "OK, if we have to take our medicine with this scene, and we just have to, how can we do that in a way that is very specific to us? That only we could do?" In that case, what evolved was they're having an expository conversation, but they're doing it while they're walking up and down buildings, which Peter is very good at, and Miles is not. For us, that communicates story and character. And even after that concept came into being, the scene continued to evolve as far as how we were shooting it.

Persichetti: Even the content of it. It was really interesting for us over the preview process to start to figure out what would stick, what people would remember, boil things down to their essence, and that scene just kept getting tighter and tighter. Fewer and fewer words.

Rothman: But honestly, every scene in the movie...we threw a lot of things out of the car as we drove, let's put it that way. (laughs)

Persichetti: I think the scene that probably changed the least was the cemetery scene. If you want the counter to that, that's the one that was the first scene animated, and a couple lines shifted here and there, but more or less, that was –

Ramsey: But in a way, you could say that was the scene that changed the most, because that was the first sequence where we really got all of our visual tools and storytelling tools sort of figured out. That first sequence sort of became like the workshop.

Persichetti: And then after that, we were like, "Oh, I guess we can actually make this movie!"

Spider-Man Into the Spider-Verse footage

Was there a lot of trial and error in finding the look?

Ramsey: Oh yeah. That took probably the first, what, like year and a half?

Really? Wow.

Ramsey: Yeah, because everybody knew we wanted to make this like nothing you'd never seen before, it's introducing a new Spider-Man after you've seen a lot of iterations of the character, you want to do something where, since this is an animated movie, let's truly lean into what animation can give us visually in terms of being able to evoke the look and feel of a comic book. How do we do that? How different can we make it? Bob started having ideas about how to approach the animation, and then visually, the challenge was, how do we create a style that will support emotionality and character but will still be something really different and something that, technically, takes from the world of the graphic style of comic books.

Persichetti: Visually, obviously this movie is incredibly stylized. It has a real strong language behind it. The thing we were always searching for, though, in our performances, was a naturalism. So it was finding the balance of, how do we get a character to be as stylized as we've chosen to try and make these characters, but also in their animation – and we had great vocal performances from our whole cast – how do we get their acting performances to feel as naturalistic as their vocal performances?"

Were you guys locked in with a release date when you came on?

All: Yes.

So under different circumstances, let's say in a perfect world where you didn't have that release date to hit, do you think the movie would look more advanced? I mean, I love the movie the way it looks right now, but I'm just wondering...

Persichetti: I don't know that it would look different. It would probably have been a little easier to get to the final – like, in the end, we would have found a cleaner procedure for the process. Because even still to the end, because this is the first time Imageworks has ever done anything like this, and anyone really has, we were learning along the way. All the way until last week. (laughs)


Rothman: Yeah, the movie's kind of a combination of stuff that's hyper-considered – things that hundreds of talented people spent a long time trying to do – and I want to say almost Jackson Pollack-style, in the moment...people who really know what they're doing just kind of throwing some stuff down. Some parts of the movie are created more from that spirit.

This movie, for me and I think for a lot of people, is going to be the best Spider-Man story that's been told on film so far. That's a pretty high bar to live up to.

Persichetti: That is a high bar. Thank you.

I'm sure you guys have seen the reactions by this point. How are you feeling? Are you in sort of a glow at this point?

Ramsey: It's more than a glow, man. It's surreal. Because literally, just a few days ago, I was on a mix stage Sunday until like one in the morning. It's like, "Wait a minute...we've finished?" I still haven't even had that. It's like the baby is graduating from college. It's just crazy.

I think I have time for two more questions. One is, have you guys played the Spider-Man video game that came out this year? Any time to do that in between takes or anything?

Persichetti: There's been no time, man.

Ramsey: And if we did have time off, I don't think Spider-Man would be it.

Fair enough!

Persichetti: The funny thing is that on our whole tour, in Europe and everywhere, everybody's so excited about that and we're like, "Yeah, I don't know! I haven't played it yet!"

And then finally, I just wondered if each of you could talk about your relationship with Spider-Man and why this story felt like it was a thing that you wanted to be a part of at this point.

Persichetti: Sure. I can't even remember how I was first introduced to Spider-Man. In my childhood, he was afternoon reruns, the '67 cartoon and all of that. But for me, when I first started on this movie, the first day I had to do a presentation to the studio. My first day was a Thursday, and they were like, "Oh, and tomorrow, you're going to get up in front of the studio and talk about Spider-Man." And I was like, "Dude, I just started!" I had a little clip where I was in Brooklyn one year with my godson who was four, and we were eating at the diner under that bridge. My friend said, "Hey, I've got a Spider-Man costume and Finn thinks that Spider-Man's here somewhere. Do you want to put it on?" And I was like, "Yeah I do!" I put it on, and I came running by, and I was asking him to help me defeat Doc Ock. And [my friend] filmed the whole thing. For me, that was the impetus for this whole thing – the look in his eyes, because he was really seeing a real superhero. It was like, if we can get that [reaction] from a $15 costume, what can we do with a big expensive Hollywood movie?

Ramsey: As a kid, I was a huge, huge Marvel comics fan. Grew up seeing the old '60s cartoon when I was tiny. I think the first comic that I ever bought with my own money was an issue of Spider-Man, I think it was Spider-Man vs. Molten Man. I wrote my name in it on the first page with little cursive letters. I've always loved the character. He's funny and he's got tons of problems. He's like the Charlie Brown of superheroes – your heart just goes out to him.

By the time this project came around, I was totally jaded about any Spider-Man or superhero movies, but the fact that Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] were involved, and then I heard Bob was involved and we know each other from DreamWorks and I know how brilliant this dude is, I was like, "Oh my God, this is going to be incredible." Then I heard it was the Miles Morales story, and of course, the opportunity to be able to introduce that character to the world and for kids of color to be able to see a kid like that going on an adventure like this. That possibility completely blew me away, and when I watch the movie, I see some of these sequences, and I go, "God, if I could have seen this movie when I was a kid..."

Rothman: For me, I grew up when I was a little kid in Queens, in Forest Hills, which is where Peter Parker is from. Even when I watch the Raimi movies, I see Tobey Maguire walking by the Baskin Robbins I went to when I was four. He filmed it around the corner from where I grew up. So I've always had a personal – I basically thought I was Peter Parker. (laughs) The one thing your question made me think of beyond that is the additional thing that got me excited about this movie, beyond even Spider-Man, was honestly when I started to talk to the people involved. These guys, Justin Thompson, who's the production designer. Obviously Phil and Chris. And when I started to get a sense of what the spirit behind the movie was as far as what it was trying to say and just how gonzo the spirit behind it was, I've been searching for an experience like that for a long time. So my big hope for this movie, my big "fingers-crossed" hope, is that not just more Spider-Verse movies can be made, but that it will open up more possibilities in animation and more people can have the experience that I just had.


Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse swings into theaters on December 14, 2018.