October 16, 2018

What ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ Can Teach Us About Story

Creativity can come from anywhere. You only need to harness it. 

At Adobe’s annual MAX conference held in Los Angeles, California, the Creative Cloud company teamed with Columbia Pictures and Sony Picture Animation for a deep-dive discussion into the animation of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse from directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman.

Ugh, we know another Spider-Man movie. But it brings up an important topic: How do you tell a story that’s been told dozens of times over?

It might be a cliché, but you need to look outside the box, before throwing that box away and pushing the story to a place no one expects. Think about perspective, setting, plot, character, conflict, and theme. Tell a different point-of-view. Raise the stakes. Do what you can to make it standout. A fantastic and recent example of this is season two of HBO’s The Deuce, where Maggie Gyllenhaal’s character, Candy, is turning the classic fairytale Little Red Riding Hood into a gritty porn set in the streets of New York. Yes, a Little Red Riding Hood porno, and it works on so many levels.

You should look at story from a visual standpoint too. How will it set itself apart? Think Gary Ross’s Pleasantville, Sin City, or Zack Snyder's 300. You need to justify why: Why this visual tone, why this direction, why this close-up, why steadicam? Connect why it relates to the story and why it matters. When you do, you create something the audience can sink its teeth into. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse developed its story using these very ideas.

Justin Thompson, a production designer at Sony Pictures Animation, said the project allowed them to tell a different Spider-Man story from the start, “one where everyone can wear the mask – where everyone can be Spider-Man.” Thompson’s right. The story centers on Miles Morales, a character couldn’t be more opposite of Peter Parker. His parents are very much alive. He doesn’t live with his aunt. He looks nothing like Peter and he actually doesn’t give a damn about being Spidey. He would much rather be a regular kid growing up in Brooklyn. This is its unique point-of-view.

Comic book readers will recognize Miles Morales—a half-black, half-Hispanic character—from his first appearance in Ultimate Fallout #4 following the death of Peter Parker. In the animated feature, he’s voiced by Shameik Moore (Get Down, Dope) and faces familiar foes like King Pin and Green Goblin, but they put him in new situations. Without spoiling too much, Spider-Man leaves New York. When have we ever seen that in a Spider-Man origin film? The only time we’ve seen him outside The Big Apple is in The Avengers movies.

Panelist Dean Gordon (Art Director, Sony Pictures Animation), Seonna Hong (Visual Development Painter, Sony Pictures Animation,) Patrick O’Keefe (Art Director, Sony Pictures Animation), and Shiyoon Kim (Lead Character Designer, Sony Pictures Animation) recognized the opportunity to create a fresh visual style for the web-slinger.

In pre-production, the team thought about the character’s point-of-view, Thompson adding, “We imagined what it would be like for the character to stare back at us as we read comics.” They imagined Miles would see the dots, the screen tones, the CMYK offsets, and the line work of the comic book world.

They took that small premise and ran with it, using those imperfect perfections on the comic book page to create the visual language of the feature, something that’s never been done before to this extent. The team started looking at the comic book panels and embraced the aberrations. The closer they looked, the more abstract they got.

Collaborating with Imageworks and visual effects supervisor Danny Dimian, the team looked at ways to manipulate light. Instead of simply emitting light, they pushed the idea of emitting screen tones. Rather than using blur on an image (that we so often do with cinema lenses), they looked to use offset that we see in printing. Their approach was to make it look and feel as much like a comic book as they could while still being grounded in reality and naturalism.

What’s worth noting here is inspiration can come in the smallest of forms, like aberrations on a page. If it’s something that excites you, grab hold of it. Surround yourself with people that share the same idea but at the same time question it to get the most from it. As storytellers, if we keep moving the needle of creativity, we can all learn from it, making us better filmmakers.     

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