Into The Spider-Verse: How Technology and Animation Though the Ages Shaped the Latest Spider-Man Movie

In the crowded world of Spider-Man film adaptations, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse has managed to stand out. After arriving in December, it’s been highly praised by critics and even picked up an Oscar nomination. It managed to break through the noise with its bright, comic-like animation style, made possible by a mix of 2D and computer-generated animation techniques. From old-school comic printing effects to modern CGI, here’s a history of the technology and animation techniques that built up to Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.

Hand-Drawn Animation

In 1937, Walt Disney Productions released Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. While it may not actually be the first feature-length animated film, it won an honorary Oscar and started a long tradition of animation in film. Of course, this was well before computer animation existed. Instead, animators had to hand-draw their frames. For Into The Spider-Verse, the team had to utilize line work and hand-drawn effects to achieve an expressive comic book style.

But Spider-Verse took another tradition from hand-drawn animation — animating on 2s instead of 1s. Animating on 2s means that a single picture is held for 2 frames. For a 24 frames per second movie, this means drawing 12 individual images instead of 24.

 

Video showing animation on 1s, 2s, and 4s side-by-side.

In his book The Animator’s Survival Guide, Richard Williams, the director of animation for Who Framed Roger Rabbit, says that “Apparently, in the early 1930s as Disney’s animators go better and better, costs were skyrocketing, and since twos work for most things, they tried to stay on twos whenever they could.” In contrast, computer animators almost always animate on 1s.

Using this old-school technique gave Spider-Verse a crisper, snappier feel. It made it so that every frame of the movie looks like its own comic panel, lending to the unique style of the movie.

Comic Book Printing

The main factor in Spider-Verse’s animation style is the comic book effect they achieved. It’s like watching the printed pages of a comic come to life. To do this, they looked at what gave comics their distinctive look. They found that using CMYK offsetting and halftone patterns would give their animation that comic book feel. Halftones are essentially dots of the same color but varying sizes that create an optical illusion — it tricks the eye into thinking it’s a smooth gradient. To create color, they would use four different colored printing plates — cyan, yellow, magenta, and black (CYMK).
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These plates would work as a stamp — one color is stamped at a time.

 

A simple demonstration of CMYK offset printing.

These techniques applied over the CG animations make that comic book effect — and create some pretty amazing colors.

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Computer Animation

In 1995, Disney and Pixar released Toy Story, the first fully computer-animated movie. Instead of having to hand-draw everything, animators could now use computer software, such as Pixar’s RenderMan, to create beautiful and smooth animations. This is how most modern animated movies are made now — RenderMan is still updated and used today.

It’s how Spider-Verse combines modern technology with old-school elements that make it unique — for example, the animators turned off motion blur, a technique that simulates the effect of a camera capturing a rapidly moving object. This helps each frame stand on its own as a comic panel. But this doesn’t mean that Spider-Verse rejected modern animation techniques — quite the opposite. Of course, the movie utilized CG, especially in creating models for the characters. But the teams at Sony Pictures Animation and Sony Pictures Imageworks also had to push the boundaries of what was possible with current technology. For example, the team had to write new software in order to render faces with line work that’s drawn separately — this helped them achieve better emotional expressions for the characters.

What Was the Result?

If you missed it in theaters, you probably won’t be able to see Into the Spider-Verse until it comes out on Blu-ray on March 19th. But you can see all of the released clips of the movie here:

 

Beyond the Spider-Verse

The animation techniques and technology developed over years of film history is why movies like Spider-Verse can exist. But as new technology develops, animation will continue to change and progress over time. Recently, Deadline reported that Sony is filing for patents for technology they created for the film. There are many new technologies named in the patent, including ink-line software that let them draw on the character in a way that more closely resembles illustration techniques. They can then convert those lines to geometry that can be animated. They also filed patents for machine learning technology that lets them predict the lines of the next frame — making the process of animating faster and easier.

Technology over time will make animation faster and easier than ever create. This allows for animators and creators to really test how they can push boundaries without taking years of the studio’s time to experiment. With Spider-Verse, technology allowed the animators to get back to the roots of animation and create something completely new and interesting. Hopefully, as technology progresses, animators can focus more of their energy on creativity and building new worlds for audiences to explore.