(Editor’s Note: The following interview contains spoilers for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse”.)
It’s a brave new multiverse for Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) and Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) in “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.” It was the same for Sony Pictures Imageworks, which introduced several new dimensions and characters inspired by a multitude of wacky-looking Marvel comic book designs. And for this, Imageworks has created innovative tools to translate the most elaborate 2D stylization into 3D with new systems for using pencil, pen and ink, markers and brushes.
In “Across the Spider-Verse,” we travel to the watercolor-inspired Earth-65, where Gwen’s Spider-Woman hails from; Earth-50101, a mashup of Mumbai and Manhattan called Mumbattan, home of Spider-Man India (Karan Soni); Earth-928, the futuristic brutalism of Nueva York, where Spider-Man 2099 (Oscar Isaac) runs the headquarters of the Spider-Society; and Earth-42, the noir world from which the spider that bit Miles originated. Plus, we get a glimpse into Earth 138B’s New London via Hobie Brown/Spider-Punk (Daniel Kaluuya). It embodies the look of 1970s rock posters, with photocopied paper textures cut and glued together and constantly moving at different frame rates.
Additionally, we’re introduced to two villains: The Vulture, an Italian Renaissance villain (Jorma Taccone) bird who lands at the Guggenheim Museum in Earth-65, and Spot (Jason Schwartzman), Miles’ bizarre-looking nemesis, who is all white with black spots that act as interdimensional portals.
“This movie was so heavily painterly and stylized,” visual effects supervisor Michael Lasker told IndieWire. “And we had to check the dry brushes, the wet brushes, check it deep, making the brushes move and repaint them. We had none of this before. So everything had to build on this film, and it’s a testament to the creativity and ingenuity of the team (at ImageWorks).”
Gwen’s Watercolor World of Mood Rings
The look of Gwen’s world was partly inspired by Robbi Rodriguez’s covers for Jason Latour comics, with their vertical streaks and streaks of paint. However, the idea that she was a wet-on-wet watercolor world was original. The idea was that it changed with each shot like a mood ring tied to Gwen’s emotional state. This was achieved with a tool called Rebelle and new brush stroke systems.
“A lot of the frames in Gwen’s world almost looked like a flat painting,” Lasker said. And a lot depends on the composition and lenses. And if you’re shooting it very flat, it lends itself well to being more graphic.
“The opening sequence was very tricky because we had to sync it to the music with his drums. It was actually one of the last sequences we finished. But we made a lot of 2D shapes. It was very inspired by graphics. And then we mixed that with renders of Gwen and the drums to create this hybrid look. It’s not so washed, it’s not so wet; it’s just a little cleaner. And then we bring a lot more of that wet look, sometimes more painterly, depending on its emotion.
The vulture invades the Guggenheim
The Vulture was a world apart from Spot, which was treated like a painting built from scratch with animated blobs and ink-smeared effects. The first challenge was figuring out the Da Vinci-style scroll for this crazy vulture creature. And then they had to make it stand out in Gwen’s world among all the saturated blues and purples and greens.
The Vulture was fully made up, inked with multiple layers of lines that were interpolated and then mixed with other materials and effects. “Not only did his rig and his modeling and his line art have to be on paper, but there were marks that he drew in the air as he rebuilt his wing,” Lasker said. “We had a speckled paper texture about him. And, in some shots, we worked a little on that kind of nickelodeon-style flicker, almost like a flip book effect with some light flickering behind it. It was always a little different in every shot.”
Bringing India to Mumbai
This world was characteristic of his Indian comic style, where the ink wasn’t always perfectly on the shape, the print was a bit off, and there were lots of colors and shapes superimposed outside the lines. They created an action-packed 2D looking tapestry, sometimes working in halftones and making it look like it wasn’t printed properly. It took new tools for simulation, line drawing, and non-photorealistic compositing to pull this off.
“They really wanted it to feel like the city was dense with wires, with people, with traffic,” Lasker added. “So we wanted an almost rougher look and it was like the juxtaposition of these two ideas, which was interesting. We used our line tool and did a lot of early tests where we took a car and drew lines around it, but we made it really messy and made the shadows messy. You wanted it to feel challenging, that there was enough graphic aspect in every shot to feel the style, but also read the emotion of the characters in their performance.”
New York in 2099
There is beauty and coolness in the Syd Mead and John Berkey-inspired brutalism of Neuva York in 2099, where a clean, futuristic world rises above the underworld of the Spider-Society headquarters, where it is dark and neon-lit. This aesthetic required its own brush tool, which was first tested in Mumbattan.
“We used that tool for brush strokes, but we actually used real marker strokes and brought them into the tool,” Lasker said. “And the makeup with the markers was how you layered them, blended them together, but with their own feel. So the markers had their own look. And it’s a very powerful tool where you can use lines for shadows, for edges. It can be messy, it can be sketchy, it can be form fitting, but not messy like Indian style.
The far side of Earth-42
This is a nightmarish world for Miles stylistically based on Sean Gordon Murphy’s “Batman: White Knight” comic series: dark, gritty, edgy and scary. “So we’ve done a lot of experiments to transmit light without using light,” Lasker said. “We would use linework to reveal the light, and we used a lot of ink splattering techniques – very sharp, unforgiving lines, a little bit of dry brush, but there’s no feathering anywhere.”
They also used highly saturated red, black, and green in Miles’ apartment. “This very green, grainy, thin stairwell, we built from there,” Lasker added. “And the way we dealt with lens flare and highlights and our compensation and our line work was really interesting.”