Following their jaw-dropping ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’, Academy Award-winning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller break even more animation rules in ‘Across the Spider-Verse’, the second installment of the three-part Miles Morales journey to become the most creative and individualistic Spider-Man. (“Beyond the Spider-Verse” will be released on March 29, 2024.)
In “Across the Spider-Verse,” which the producers are calling their “Empire Strikes Back,” Miles (Shameik Moore) travels across multiple multiverses with love interest Gwen Stacy (Hailee Steinfeld) and the Spider-Society (led by Miguel O’Hara) to prevent the destruction of their worlds by Spot (Jason Schwartzman), who traverses time and space through interdimensional portals on his body.
The producers began discussing the sequel with screenwriter David Callaham (“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”) during the completion of “Into the Spider-Verse”, and he provided a completed take on a slightly different story. “But a lot of the ideas that he had are in this picture and actually even more in the next one,” Lord told IndieWire.
“But once we finished the first one,” Miller added, “we came together and started to figure out what was really important about Miles’ journey and how we could tell a really satisfying story that was as emotionally resonant as the first one, but take us into lots of new places.”
These new locations include the aesthetically bold world-building of “Across the Spider-Verse” that far surpasses its groundbreaking predecessor. There’s Earth-65, where Gwen’s Spider-Woman is from, designed to look like watercolors; Earth-5010, based on the Spider-Man India comics, which they dubbed “Mumbattan” because he’s a mix of Mumbai and Manhattan; Nueva York, the futuristic world of Marvel 2099, where Miguel lives; the rebellious New London, inhabited by Hobie, the Spider-Punk of Daniel Kaluuya; and a nightmarish world whose identity will remain spoiler-free.
“We like to party when things don’t match up,” Lord said. “Some people don’t like that the work has no seams, is smooth and has no edges. I think for us the edges are the joyful part. And from an animation standpoint, obviously, our entire career we’ve been trying to push American studio animation into more radical places. And, for us, it’s an opportunity to show how limitless the possibilities are. And this story begs for that because you’re going to go to all these different worlds, and each one can look like its own bespoke animation style and have a reason to look that way.
And Miles serves as the perfect creative muse for the producers: a restless, artistic teenager who believes anything is possible in charting one’s own path. “Miguel says being Spider-Man is a sacrifice,” Lord added. “That’s what we love about this character, that their obligation to heroism always compromises their personal happiness. It’s something we can relate to, and it’s something that makes these stories really rich.
Yet this sequel was a tremendous undertaking, requiring two stories to complete Miles’ journey and an entirely new set of tools and techniques from Sony Picture Imageworks. Three new directors have joined the team to provide new voices: Joaquim Dos Santos (“The Legend of Korra”), an action choreography specialist; Kemp Powers (co-director of “Soul” and Academy Award-nominated screenwriter of “One Night in Miami”), who honed both the cultural authenticity of Miles as a black superhero and the universality of his coming-of-age story ; and Justin K. Thompson, the “Into the Spider-Verse” production designer, who helped lead the building of the expanding world.
If “Into the Spider-Verse” broke the Imagework pipeline while creating a heartwarming 3D comic, then “Across the Spider-Verse” broke it again, five times over, with an unprecedented crew of 1,000 artists and technicians. Only this time they had a number of Marvel comic projects and some of the original artists to help guide them in continuing to push a variety of 2D looks into 3D animation.
Gwen and her world required a new watercolor simulation tool for backgrounds and a mood ring tool for her character. “There were a couple of programmers who were a huge part of our crew,” Miller said, “whose job it was to facilitate all of these things. It’s easy to say that the world should drip away and the color should change around her as she his mood changes. But someone had 18 months of R&D to figure out how to teach the computer to paint him.”
Meanwhile, Mumbattan’s look epitomized 1970s Indian comics done very quickly with different types of exotic ink and a loose approach to how images were recorded and how ink flowed into characters. “You really feel the speed of the artist drawing, and we wanted to represent that because, if you go to Mumbai, he moves fast and there’s a lot to do,” added Lord. “And we wanted that immersive feeling from that technique. Luckily, we figured it out in time for the film’s release, but just barely.
While we only get a glimpse of 1970s punk scene in New London, it’s based on poster collages. “Homemade and ripped and chopped, and the idea that (Hobie) is a walking collage,” said Miller. “But how do we render it in three dimensions?” added Lord. “How do we take the information we have and then photograph it, photocopy it, distort it, move it and make it change, but without the eye getting lost or confused? It depends on the lighting artists.
In contrast, the look of Nuevo New York, inspired by the neo-futurist illustrations of Syd Mead (“Blade Runner”), contained beauty that clashes with brutalism. “The trick was how to make the markers look right without totally distracting, like 12 frames per second of a million scribbles,” Lord said. “The thing you love about that 80s concept art was that a lot of it was drawn on boards that weren’t always white. And some of it’s light on dark… there’s some negative space under the drawing, but it’s not finished yet.
“And you can see the lines on Miguel,” she continued, “like the pencil is unfinished. It’s kind of a cruel joke on Miguel, who basically claims that the future is written, but the image is constantly undermining his argument and saying, in effect, that the future hasn’t fully materialized.
Then there’s Spot (scientist Jonathan Ohnn), who alone required 17 new tools. He evolves over the course of the film, going from a rough sketch to a fully formed character, with every drop of ink in his body looking and behaving differently. However, the idea for him as a supervillain came from Marvel Studios founder Avi Arad after much resistance from producers, who thought he was straight out of a Looney Tunes cartoon.
“When Avi first suggested it, we ignored it for too long,” Lord said. “We thought, ‘This is the dumbest villain,’ but he said, ‘No, his power is actually a lot more powerful than anyone realizes.’ And then we thought it was thematically very interesting. It’s kind of funny to take a villain who feels like a joke and feels left out and alone like Miles does, and they’re on a similar journey, but his is the darker path. He’s trying to fill a hole in his heart with more holes.
The artists and technicians made the Spot look like a moving and ever-changing environment. They drew it in blue and inked it over. And then the blue disappears during the printing process. “But in our film, we wanted to see it and then the commercials themselves,” Miller said. “The animators control the commercials, but then they had to go through the visual effects to have the kind of turbulence.”
Lord added that it was like oil on glass meeting ink poured into a fish tank with a dry erase marker and wax pen on top. “He’s got this rousing style,” he continued. “Once he got into fully committed form, that was another R&D thing, and that shoot wasn’t finished until a month ago. How do you make something that is empty seem right? How do you take negative space and represent it as colorful and rowdy when it’s practically pitch black? People are just starting to scratch the surface of what is possible (in CG).”