‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’: Phil Lord & Chris Miller Introduce Game-Changer Miles Morales

The "LEGO Movie" producers redefine Spidey on the big screen as a superhero of color while breaking the rules of CG animation at Sony.
a still from "Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"
"Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse"
Sony Pictures Animation

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” (December 14) is the wild card in the animated Oscar race. It not only introduces Miles Morales as the alternative Spidey, the Afro-Puerto Rican teen from Brooklyn, but also boldly breaks the rules of animation as a moving comic book splattered with graffiti. Yet, given what Phil Lord and Chris Miller already accomplished with “The LEGO Movie,” this was the logical next step.

“Miles is one of the most popular characters, if not the most popular character, to be introduced in the last 10 years or so,” said Lord, who shares script credit with Rodney Rothman (“22 Jump Street”). “The thing that [‘Miles Morales’ co-creator] Brian Bendis did was to help us imagine that it could be a completely different kind of person under that mask. And yet a person that embodied the heart of what Steve Ditko and Stan Lee started with: an unexpected hero who feels too young and too unqualified, and doesn’t fit the archetype of a superhero.”

The introduction of Morales as Spidey not only offers a person of color along with a new cultural and family dynamic, but also distinct superpowers such as camouflaging.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”Sony Pictures Animation

Read More:5 Directors Who Should Get Their Own Standalone Spider-Verse Films

“The fact that he’s a kid from Brooklyn, that he’s not an orphan and has loving parents, and for us, that he’s a creative kid [as a graffiti artist], makes him feel like a new way to think about the eternal, universal myth that is behind Spider-Man,” said Miller. “And by having it being a totally different character wearing the mask, we want anybody looking up at the screen saying they can be a hero if they take the responsibility of saving the world and not leave it to other people.”

Lord and Miller supplied the vision as producers, assembling a trio of eclectic animated talent to direct: Bob Persichetti (“Puss in Boots” story artist), Peter Ramsey (“Rise of the Guardians”), and Rothman. And they hired an impressive voice cast: Shameik Moore as Morales, Brian Tyree Henry as his cop father, Lauren Luna Vélez as his mother, Mahershala Ali as his mysterious uncle, and Liev Schreiber as the villainous Kingpin.

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”Sony Pictures Animation

Plus, there’s the Avengers-like gallery of Spideys from an alternate dimension to aid Morales: Jake Johnson as the snarky, reluctant mentor, Peter Parker, Hailee Steinfeld as the free-spirited Spider-Gwen, Nicholas Cage as Bogie-like Spider-Noir, John Mulaney as the cartoony Spider-Ham, and Kimiko Glenn as the anime-inspired Peni Parker.

“Bob, who was the first man in, believed in getting authenticity into our depiction of Brooklyn,” said Lord. “He understood what it was like to be a graffiti artist. He also brought a cinematic approach to the filmmaking. The split-screens were all in the script, but he elevated that stuff with time-lapse and other things.

“And bringing Peter on to this massive undertaking was so valuable. Nobody knows how to stage action like Peter, and he brings a sensitivity to what the audience is thinking and feeling while they watch the picture. And he brings, as a person of color, a really important point of view and authenticity to Miles’ experience. And then Rodney is a guy we work with a lot who wanted to help us make the story work better, but in a way that was still reaching for big emotional ideas and complicated human behavior.”

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”Sony Pictures Animation

But when it came to defining the animated aesthetic, they wanted it to embody the funky, illustrated look of “Miles Morales” co-creator Sara Pichelli. “The idea was to make it look exactly like the concept art, but the studio said it was really hard to do that, and we wanted to give it a shot, and they were really jazzed about it,” Lord said.

But their radical ideas broke the pipeline of Sony Pictures Imageworks. It meant rewriting the animation software and shaders and using techniques that required the hand of an artist to fine tune every frame. The process was messy, unscientific, and unpredictable, but the end result was a liberating experiment.

“One of the first choices was how we were going to represent light and shadow in this world,” said Miller. “The idea was that we would have all lighting sources be halftone lighting. Anything a light hits wouldn’t be soft, CG light, it would be dots that recede farther from the light source. And all the shading would be hash marks that go into graphic black shapes. We had to figure out a pipeline to make that work and look convincing when characters are moving around like they have a weird shape dancing around their face or terrible, light acne.”

“Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse”Sony Pictures Animation

The hardest part was determining the look early on during Morales’ transformation, trying to understand the strange changes he’s undergoing physically. “He’s running down the street in Brooklyn and trying to call his uncle Aaron, and we kept trying to push it farther and farther to make it more stylized,” said Miller.

“And by the end, it looks like an Ezra Jack Keats storybook like ‘The Snowy Day,’ with these layers of shapes of shading, and it felt very hand-made and experiential. And when we finally saw this one profile shot, there were all these silhouettes of pastel colors and the different shapes and textures on buildings. Miles was running through and fit into the environment. He didn’t feel like a CG character in a painted world. He felt like he was painted as well.”

The hope, of course, is that “Into the Spider-Verse” catches on at the potentially lucrative holiday box office — and becomes an Oscar contender. It’s all part of a plan by Lord and Miller to expand mainstream animation by embracing new genres and techniques. “We are in a golden age and this is just the beginning,” said Lord. “But even when people are afraid about audiences staying home instead of going to the movies, they really come out for animation. Our hope is that they will look back at this movie years from  now and say it was conservative.”

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