With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, their latest animated outing, producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller took a big swing, experimenting with bold formal choices to meet great power with great responsibility. The big screen debut of Miles Morales—an Afro-Latino teenager who dons the spidey suit, within a Marvel multiverse—Spider-Man would feature an unprecedented visual presentation befitting a truly groundbreaking character. Created in 2011 by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Sara Pichelli—and soon amassing a major fan following—Morales comes into his own in the fast-paced origin story, swinging through poignant family moments, rampant meta comedy, and various dimensions, coming face to face with a number of Spider-Men and Women, while combatting a dire threat to humanity.
An endlessly innovative duo, Lord and Miller have always sought to raise the creative bar, demonstrating that there are few limitations to what is possible, when imagination is in no short supply. Building a bona fide franchise out of 21 Jump Street—a late ‘80s police procedural—and then with Lego toys alone, the pair have forged their own path to critical acclaim and major box office success, resulting in but one problem. Setting such a high standard for themselves, they then must look to meet or exceed that bar with each new project they take on. Certainly, with Spider-Man—which brings the aesthetics of vintage comic books to feature animation—the producers left everything on the screen. “The movie itself was so ambitious, and every phase of it was doing things that hadn’t been done before, breaking pipelines and breaking the mold,” Miller says. “So, it was a matter of necessity, having really smart filmmakers being able to take over different phases of the movie and help go towards a common goal.”
Bringing on directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman—who worked from a script by Lord and Rothman—the pair enjoyed the opportunity to work with a cluster of artists in going where no one had gone before. “It just made it a much more enriching creative experience,” Lord says. “We got to trade ideas with some of the best people in this field, so on a personal level, it was just a really fun time of creative growth.”
Currently completing work on The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part, Lord and Miller were forced to “use different tricks” with Spider-Man, balancing humor and pathos in just the right way. Per Lord, this kind of work “really shows what animation can do on a dramatic level.” Undoubtedly, the idea of breaking new artistic ground will find its way into any project the producers choose to take on. “When I go to a movie, I want to feel like I’m getting a new experience, something fresh and interesting that I haven’t seen before. Movie tickets are expensive these days, so you’ve got to give people their money’s worth, and I think people really appreciate that you can see the effort that was put onto the screen,” Miller reflects. “This movie especially, you can really feel the loving hands of an artist on every frame.”
“There’s no reason why you can’t make movies with a great diversity of looks and styles, and tones and genres,” the producer adds. “Animation is a medium, not a genre, and the more we can push it, the better off we’ll all be for the types of movies we can see.”
Was there a sense of pressure with Spider-Man, knowing that you were bringing a beloved character to the big screen for the first time?
Phil Lord: Obviously, you want to get it right. We are huge fans of this character and his unique take on Spider-Man, and we just thought that it was such an important opportunity. Part of the motivation or the mission of [the film] was really wanting to get Miles into the movie theater, and we thought we had a really good chance to pull it off.
Phil, what was your approach in writing the script? What did you find the essence of Morales’ story to be?
Lord: Funnily enough, at the screenplay stage, even though Miles’ book is a little less well known, for some reason you felt a little more obliged to stick to the details in the book than we might normally have felt. Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs deviates dramatically from the source material, and something about what we started with, with Miles, made you want to treat it as though everything that you were reading is something that happened, like the source material was just true. I think that’s a testament to the thing that Brian and Sara made. It’s so well fleshed out and feels so truthful that it just feels like a real kid, and you wanted to be as strict to the details of his life as you could be.
We were really inspired by the work that had gone into creating that character of Miles, and it made us take a really deep dive into why we think this story has been so resonant over decades and generations. It’s such a goofy premise, a spider-themed superhero, and there were a couple things that we really latched onto, that went all the way back to Stan Lee and Steve Ditko. This is the one [story] that’s about a kid who’s too young to do this—a superhero who’s got regular person problems. He doesn’t come from a privileged background; he’s a lower-middle-class kid growing up in Queens who doesn’t fit in anywhere, and doesn’t feel empowered. The powers make him feel potent, and that, to us, was the enduring nugget that makes all of these characters bound together, and what makes them resonate with us as viewers. I think that’s why Miles feels so natural in the spider-suit—he’s continuing on this legacy in a really modern way, but that’s hard. He’s still a person who feels unqualified to do what he’s doing, and that emotional center felt like it was our cornerstone. Every time that the movie started getting really crazy and there’s a million dimensions, and a million weird villains, and everybody’s got a different outfit, we stripped it bare of those bells and whistles and just went back to: “What are the core storytelling values that we are trying to represent here?” When you take all the cool outfits off, what remains is, how can I become my best self?
We tried to pair that with the idea of Peter Parker becoming a mentor for the first time in his life, and we thought, “God, what a funny and warm, sweet thing.” The young guy has to be older and wiser, and he has no idea how to do it. That would put Peter in a really vulnerable place, and what a neat relationship to have a young kid, who actually knows more about what he needs from Peter than Peter knows. Fundamentally, it was an emotional idea that got us confident enough that we thought we could take on the movie, and then everything else was a lot easier because we knew we had something solid.
Christopher Miller: We wanted to experience every scene through Miles’ eyes, because at the end of the day it’s an emotional coming-of-age story about this kid trying to figure out what path to take, with a lot of people telling him different ways to go, having to find his own way that takes bits from all the different people in his life and make something new.
Lord: His experience is universal, which was our experience as filmmakers going into it. This story is so resonant because we all feel like the only one who is on this quest to be their best self. And when you find kindred spirits and realize that they’re all just as vulnerable as you are, and just as worried that they won’t be good enough, that felt like a movie.
What were the central qualities you were going for with the film’s groundbreaking visual style? How was this look realized?
Miller: It isn’t just straight CGI, and it’s more than just hand-drawn animation. We used a combination of both, so we would render things on the computer, and light them using different textures—like half-tone dots, and hatch marks and line work—and then on top of that, every single frame was finalized with hand-drawn animation on top, so that it felt like you were walking into the pages of an artist’s brain. You can literally freeze every frame of the movie and it looks like a hand-drawn illustration, but it moves around in three dimensions and through space in a way you’ve never seen before. So, it was a really complicated process, and we didn’t realize how hard it was going to be.
At the beginning, we were just like, “Look at this amazing artwork, and now look at this amazing concept artwork.Instead of this inspiring something that doesn’t look like the concept art, why can’t we make it look as impressionistic as the actual concept artwork itself?” It turns out that it’s very complicated and hard to do, and they’re only able to animate about one second of film per week, whereas on most CG movies, it’s at least four seconds. It’s about four times as hard to do this process as other ones. But thankfully, everyone supported it because they could see that it was groundbreaking and new.
Lord: The shot count is also a lot higher, which has to do with trying to tell a story through action. Using as many cinematic tools as we could think of required a faster cutting style, and there’s shots within shots, because there’s panels within the frame sometimes. So, quickly, a simple shot would turn into five. [Laughs] But it’s all in service of trying to make the medium of animation feel as expressive as possible. These digital tools are so powerful, but they only matter if they allow an artist to be expressive, so all of our choices were trying to put the film into the artist’s hands as much as we possibly could. We tried to take all of the limitations of computer animation away and invite the animators to animate using different frame rates, if that was what the shot called for, to bend the models in ways that they were never designed to bend—and then to draw on top of the image whenever that made sense. The lighting artists did the same thing—they were using their intuition in a way that they’re not always invited to do.
Miller: The lighting was rendered with textures, and there was no motion blur. There were smear lines for fast movement, but there was no blurring for depth of field. We used chromatic aberration, which is like when they would misprint a comic book page, and the colors would separate. We would use that for things in the background that you weren’t supposed to look at, and then a thing you were supposed to look at was crisp and in focus, as a different stylistic way to show depth of field. Throughout the movie, there’s so much invention from the hundreds and hundreds of artists that worked on this thing. Everybody put their heart and soul into it, and you can really tell.
Opening up the Spider-Verse with this film, it seems that you’ve made a powerful statement—that any person, from any background, can be a hero, so long as they’re willing to put their powers toward the greater good.
Miller:Yeah. It’s been really exciting, seeing kids in early screenings, saying, “Hey, that looks like me.” It’s very moving. There’s something really exciting about being able to have anybody watching the movie feel like, “Oh, it’s up to me to make the world a better place. I can’t just outsource that, or leave that to the fancy, successful people. It’s up to me.” Hopefully, this movie will be inspirational for people to feel like what makes them different is what makes them special, or can make them do great things.
Sadly, the visionary Stan Lee passed away a month prior to the film’s release. What was it like working with him on this film, on hiscameos and more?
Lord:The guy is just so positive, and he’s, I think in all of our lives, such an encouraging influence. When we were growing up, we would read his letters that he would write in the comic pages, and they were always so welcoming. He wanted you to share in these stories; he was doing everything he could to democratize the hero’s myth, and also, to make you his pal, exploring these worlds. Meeting him in person was exactly the same way. There was no sense that he was a protector of a sacred scroll. It just felt like it felt reading those letters, like he wanted us to be a part of it, and it belonged to everyone. This characters existed, and we were all just trying to report what happened to him—and we were in it together. He was really generous on the microphone and willing to try all kinds of stuff, with a big smile on his face. Chris and I have met him a few times over the years, and he’s always been the same. He’s always been encouraging, no matter what level of peon we happened to be at the time. [Laughs]
Miller:He tapped into this idea that feeling like you’re an outsider is actually universal—that it brings us all together—and I think that’s why his stuff has really stood the test of time. We can all project ourselves into that, and it’s in the DNA of this movie, as well. We knew, doing a take on the universality of the Spider-Man myth, that we needed to give him a place of honor in the cameo, and not just a tossed-aside, random moment that doesn’t have to do with anything. We found a spot that we felt was an important moment in the story, and allowed him to carry some emotional weight, and it was the perfect thing.