‘What If…?’: Finding the Right Timeless Look for the MCU’s Animated Anthology

The animation pays tribute to two legendary illustrators: J.C. Leyendecker and Marvel's Jack Kirby.
Doctor Strange
"What If...?"
Courtesy of Marvel Studios

Through the first four episodes of  “What If…?,” the animated anthology has managed to turn the MCU on its head with inspired alternative narratives while embracing a graphic style that elevates the characters and environments.

What if Peggy Carter (Haley Atwell) became the first Captain America through the lens of World War II expressionism? What if T’Challa/Black Panther (the late Chadwick Boseman) became Star Lord in a Guardians universe that reflects his personality? What if Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) turned detective in a film noir procedural? And what if Doctor Strange lost his heart instead of his hands in a surreal nightmare?

“We have the advantage that people have seen these places before, and so we have a lot of latitude and can do all sorts of things and they will get it,” said production designer Paul Lasaine. “So they see that room in the Captain America world, where the green pod is, and they instantly know that it’s the rebirth chamber. Of course, we want to pay tribute to it, but we want to avoid looking too much like the existing environment. At the same time, stylization is what you expect from animation.”

T’Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
“What If…?”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

But obviously characters influence the environment. Take T’Challa, who adores purple. “So he’s like the more sexy version of Peter Quill,” Lasaine said. “He’s got cooler clothes and purple goggles and, in looking for an accent color for the environments, we went with purple.”

But in searching for a vintage graphic style that appears timeless, director Bryan Andrews, a veteran storyboard artist (“Doctor Strange”), suggested legendary early 20th century illustrator, J.C. Leyendecker (“The Saturday Evening Post”). “Leyendecker was so incredibly talented and going back and looking at that work was very daunting to translate into animation,” said Ryan Meinerding, head of visual development and character design. “He worked in very complicated ways and created very sophisticated designs with lots of elements. There were brushstrokes and interesting lighting patterns and textures. Trying to pull certain things out of that style that we could use meant that we were looking at some of the proportions that he was using in his figures, and some of the ways in which he designed silhouettes and folds and wrinkles.”

It’s about the proportions: making characters look tall with slightly smaller heads and broad shoulders, which is perfect for superheroes, and putting rim lights on characters and environments for stronger, bolder emphasis. “He made his figures into monumental sculptures,” Meinerding said. “This made them look larger than life.”

Captain Carter (center) and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios' WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.
“What If…”Courtesy of Marvel Studios

The animation technique brought its own challenges. They went with a combination of 3D modeling and 2D shading known as 2.5D, and the animation was divided between Blue Spirit, Squeeze, and Flying Bark. “We’re doing 2D drawings to essentially do the design work and get that approved by the filmmakers and, realistically, that’s going to have to be changed to a
3D model that’s going to have to be rendered to look flat,” Meinerding said.

However, the stylistic aspects of each episode were predicated on the genre of choice: war, sci-fi, film noir, horror. “It’s all about tone,” said Stephan Franck, the animation supervisor. “Being dramatic, going lighter, that is the key to the MCU.” So is pushing stylistic convention, which they did on the Doctor Strange episode by leveraging the renowned Jack Kirby Krackle from the Marvel comic books (using a field of black to represent negative space when the universe starts dissolving). This occurred as a result of Strange’s obsession to change the past.

“The Kirby Krackle is something that you see in comics but rarely see in movies or on TV,” Franck said. “We’re in this abstract environment where you don’t have anything that you can recognize to orient you, and it’s purely relying on the aesthetic and shape language,” Franck said. “So doing it in animation you have one foot in the graphic world and one foot in the cinematic world. A lot of energy went into developing it and finding the dimensionality. Fine tuning was really fun.”

“What If…?” currently streams on Disney+. New episodes will be released weekly.

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