‘Across the Spider-Verse’ Directors on How Lord and Miller, ‘Portal,’ and Spidey Comics Are Shaping the Sequel

Kemp Powers tells IndieWire: "[Lord and Miller] are not satisfied with satisfactory, and push you to make things better and funnier."
Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse
"Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse"
Sony Pictures

Much like the Super-Collider at the center of its multiverse plot, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” opened a rift that continues to impact the world around it. Its influence can still be felt across the film industry, from “The Mitchells vs. The Machines” and “The Bad Guys” to the new “Puss in Boots” blending CG animation with illustrated looks — showing not only what superhero movies could do better, but how Hollywood animation as a whole could improve.

For the sequel to the Oscar winner, the filmmakers are not just resting on their laurels, but doubling down on the innovation of “Into the Spider-Verse.” This means inventing new tools for animation and challenging the characters with emotional stories. But arguably the biggest innovation is the way “Across the Spider-Verse” challenges the superhero film industrial complex and its treatment of comic book artists, by making them a part of the film’s development.

“Comics are the R&D and the foundation for all these franchises, but oftentimes the creators barely get a mention in the credits,” co-director Joaquim Dos Santos told IndieWire following a first look at “Across the Spider-Verse” and its new villain at the 2022 Annecy International Animation Film Festival. “So making sure they’re a part of this is super important.”

The team reached out to artists like Spider-Man 2099 creator Rick Leonardi, Kris Anka, Sanford Greene, and Brian Stelfreeze to provide character designs and help translate their art style from the page to the screen. “You can’t just imitate somebody else’s style, no matter how hard you try,” said co-director Justin K. Thompson. “Having people like Rick Leonardi with his specific look come help us and then developing a tool that can interpret the lighting dynamic as if he was drawing and translating it to 3D is just awesome.”

To translate the look of a comic into a 3D art form, the animation team once again invented new tools and techniques. During the presentation at Annecy, the three directors spoke of using a watercolor simulation tool for Spider-Gwen’s (Hailee Steinfeld) dimension to give it a “three-dimensional mood ring” look. According to Thompson, there are new tools for the linework, for the lighting, for depth of field, for the camera work, and much more. “Honestly, it’s no more than giving artists permission,” Thompson said, while alluding to the artists’ work on the film’s new villain, The Spot, voiced by Jason Schwartzman. “They are willing and eager to go and invent something new to use their creativity. We used 17 new tools just for [The Spot]. And as we showed in the presentation he’s going to evolve throughout the film, going from a rough drawing to a fully formed character, with each ink drop in his body looking and behaving differently.”

The Spot is not just there to look cool. What started out as a goofy comic book villain gains a new life in “Across the Spider-Verse,” where his namesake blots take on new multidimensional depths that seem tailor-made for a movie about the multiverse. “This guy has so much unrealized potential,” co-director Kemp Powers said. “If you ever played the game ‘Portal,’ you know you could do some shit with these superpowers.” Of course, it’s not just about the look and the powers: The Spot gets a character arc that involves rising to marquee billing from his current place on the D-list of Spidey’s rogues’ gallery — a trajectory that mimics that of the film’s young protagonist, Miles Morales (Shameik Moore).

“Keep in mind, Miles, right out of the gate, saved the whole multiverse in the first film,” Powers said. “Now he’s having to step back and manage life and family, and realize he was never the ‘friendly neighborhood Spider-Man,’ he was ‘the save the multiverse Spider-Man.’ The journeys of Miles and The Spot complement each other.”

Though returning producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller did not attend Annecy, they sent a video message from Burbank, where they are very much involved with the making of the sequel. “We’ve been getting texts and messages from them this whole time,” Powers said. “They are very hands-on. They are not satisfied with satisfactory, and push you to make things better and funnier. That contributes to why every scene ends up feeling so strong in the first film, and hopefully it will feel the same way with this one.”

“Nothing is there that doesn’t have a purpose,” added Dos Santos.

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