Now You See Me: The Creation of the Spider-Verse

Reading Time: 12 minutes

This is the first article in Now You See Me, a new series by Donya Abramo and Sean Z on the animation industry. Each article will focus on a different studio and will include discussions with creators about how they develop inclusive and diverse stories.

Our first interview is with Christina Steinberg from Sony Pictures Animation, who joined us to discuss the creation of Into the Spider-Verse.

Sean Z (GeekDad):
Could you discuss the creation of Into the Spider-Verse? Since this was an existing IP, for example, did Sony come up with the concept, or was it initially pitched by Marvel?

Christina Steinberg (Sony Pictures Animation):
Absolutely. I’m one of five producers, so sort of I’m speaking for all of us. We had a wonderful group of people. There were five producers. There was Avi Arad, Amy Pascal, Phil and Chris, and myself.

And then we had Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey, and Rodney as the directors. And basically, Amy Pascal and Avi, who had such a long history with the Spider-Man franchise and Avi, certainly, with all of Marvel, had long wanted to do an animated Spider-Man and they had approached Chris and Phil, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, about doing an animated Spider-Man… And for Chris and Phil, as I think you probably know as filmmakers, everyone knows that they’re always looking for fresh ways to tell stories and for fresh ways to address material, and if they can’t find a way to make something feel new and a different kind of story than they’ve seen before then they don’t really want to participate.

They were intrigued by the idea of doing an animated Spider-Man, but needed to find a way in, and so, for them, the way in was to tell the story of Miles Morales, which is part of the comic book that Brian Bendis and Sara Pichelli have created, and they went to Amy and Avi and said, “We would love to do an animated Spider-Man. It would have to look different than any other Spider-Man movie that came before it, and we really only wanna do it if we can tell the story of Miles Morales.” So that’s really how it came into being.

Donya Abramo (Hypable):
Could you discuss the process of crafting that story at Sony Pictures Animation? Once you had that initial idea that the story was going to focus on Miles, and it was going to be something different… How did that process start?

Christina:
I came onto the movie about a year into the process, so I’ll take you back to what happened before I got there. But I can take you all the way through. So when Phil and Chris said they would love to tell that story, Amy and Avi were very excited about it and brought it to the studio, and everybody at Sony Animation was very excited to hear and make this version of Spider-Man. It felt different, it felt fresh, it felt modern, and it was an exciting way to sort of keep the Spider-Man franchise alive and moving in a new direction. And being able to tell many different stories, keeping the Peter Parker franchise alive on the live-action side, and then delving into Miles on the animation side.

And Phil, and with Chris, and working with Amy and Avi, developed the script for the first year. And Phil went off and wrote the script, and he… it was a lot based on the comic book and the influence of Brian Bendis and all of the stories from the comic book, and came up with the idea to tell Miles’ story and bring in the multiverse into it.

And that script took about a year to develop and at that point, they brought on the first director, Bob Persichetti, who is a wonderful, incredibly talented director, who I worked with for many years at Dreamworks Animation. And so Bob was the first director to come on board and work closely with Phil and Chris and Amy and Avi and coming up with initial boards and trying to get the story up and running in force.

And then about a year into it, the script was delivered and started to solidify, Peter Ramsey came in as a second director. And Peter and I had worked together on Rise of the Guardians at DreamWorks, and I was brought on once the movie had a release date and we had two years to get the movie up and running and produced and made.

And Rodney Rothman came on board as the third director soon after that and it might seem like it was a lot of people, but the movie was so ambitious in scope and so we were really reinventing the pipeline of how to animate a movie. And Sony Imageworks was so excited to have this challenge, but it took many, many people to actually pull it off in the time that we had. Because two years actually isn’t that long actually produce and make an animated film.

So, once the team was in place and we had an amazing production designer in Justin Thompson, a digital effects Danny Dimian, just the whole team of people came together and it took many, many hours to just understand the look of the film. How could you make a comic book look like it was coming to life onscreen?

So in addition to crafting story, it was also about crafting the actual look of the picture. And bringing this moving comic books to life.

Sean:
With multiple directors like that, did you end up creating multiple teams? Was a director specifically in charge of animation, or another one was in charge of story? Was there some kind of dividing of work?

Christina:
You know, it’s interesting. They’re all so talented in so many different ways, and certainly, Rodney comes from a writing background. Bob and Peter come from an animation background. But really, they all worked really together strongly as a team. And it was, in many ways, they helped each other depending on the week and the day.

There were so many actors to record that I would often try to figure out who was available, who maybe wasn’t focused on one particular sequence that was heavily in production at the moment. So they definitely have—Bob is an incredible animator who started in animation and was really, really a big part of finding the animation style with the animation team and with Josh. And Peter comes from an amazing, amazing career as a storyboard artist and worked both in live action and in animation and Rodney comes from a writing background.

But they certainly played to each other’s strengths, but it was all so interchangeable and they really enjoyed working together, which—it was wonderful that the team all just sort of worked together in the sandbox and inspired each other pretty much on a daily, weekly basis.

Image courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

Sean:
Once the animation was started, was that something that Sony took on in house? Did Sony actually have animators?

Christina:
Yeah. It’s all through Sony Imageworks, which is part of Sony and it’s through the different company than Sony Animation, but Sony Imageworks produces most of these Sony Animation movies and makes them. And they’re just the most incredible and talented, hard-working group of people. And I think they were so inspired by what we were trying to do that they all really pushed themselves. And it was long and hard days and weeks, but they, they really were so just inspired, I think by both the story and just also the ambition, the visual ambitions of this movie.

Sean:
It was definitely—I’d never seen anything like it really. So it was truly a great experience.

Christina:
We hadn’t either and it was really exciting when it started to come together, ’cause there were many, many nights when we would worry that we hadn’t seen yet it all sort of come together and that we were able to pull this off. And so when we finally started to see that it was really exciting and thrilling and also I think generated so much excitement in the entire studio.

Sean:
Since you’ve worked on Rise of the Guardians, how is different working on a licensed property than an original one?

Christina:
I mean, I think—you know it’s interesting—I think we’re all such huge Marvel fans and what they’ve been able to achieve in their live-action movies is so inspiring and exciting and the level of storytelling has been something that we’re all, sort of, excited by. I mean, I think Black Panther came out while we were working on the movie and they just pushed so many boundaries and it’s so emotional and exciting and action-filled and really what they’re doing over there is just incredible.

So, I think we felt that we wanted to look up to that reputation and we needed to find a way to make the animated version as exciting, as special, as great storytelling as the live-action movie. It was a lot that we felt like we needed to live up to. And also just having the inspiration of Stan Lee, who’s always hanging over us and Avi had such long relationship with Stan that he told us so much about. And to be able to add to his legacy that way was really exciting. And I feel like it was really just about it inspired us, it made us feel like we had to be bold and break boundaries and be as big in the storytelling as they had been in theirs.

Sean:
Do you have to have check-ins with Marvel where they would review and approve your work, or did they give Sony the bulk of creative control? How does that kind of relationship work?

Christina:
Yeah. Well, we had to do them throughout the process. We would check in, we would sort of tell them what we were doing, but I think Avi, because of his relationship to Marvel, there’s so much trust there. It was a great relationship. They were just supportive and excited to see what we were doing.

Donya:
You’ve worked at other animation studios prior to coming over to Sony, and to Spider-Verse. Are there things you think Sony does particularly well compared to other studios?

Christina:
Well, I think they do a lot of things well. I mean, the team over there is really strong. Kristine Belson and Pam Marsden who run Sony Animation are incredibly powerful, strong and supportive women. And so they really have so much trust in a filmmaker and they were so supportive.

And this is a process that, because it was so different, and because we were reinventing the pipeline and a visual style, you need a lot of trust because you don’t really see everything come together and until we were pretty far down the road. And they were just incredibly supportive and trusting of the filmmakers, which, I don’t know if it’s unique in every studio, but certainly I felt that I haven’t been in a place that’s so supportive of filmmakers in a long time. And I think that was really exciting.

And I think that, for all of us, we were just really so overwhelmed with how talented everybody is at Imageworks and what they were able to achieve. It was never, “We can’t do that. We don’t want to do that. We don’t have the time to do that.” They just pushed and pushed and believed in the movie and the directors on a daily basis and just their level of talent and drive is really exciting and I think pretty—I mean, again, I don’t want to say it’s unique because there are so many talented people out there. I’ve worked with amazing animation companies and animators at other studios. But, these guy are really just the most talented group of people I think I have ever worked with.

Sean:
That definitely shows—as I said, that was the first time I had seen that kind of animation before, and it was quite impressive.

Christina:
Thank you; there were just really incredible.

Sean:
Spider-Verse has been praised for including all these people you don’t see in comic book movies. It had multiple people of color in leading roles, it had women protagonists and antagonists. Was this kind of inclusion a clear goal when the project started or is it something that developed organically as you were writing?

Christina:
I think a little bit of both. I mean, I think telling the story of Miles was important for Chris and Phil for many reasons, in addition to just feeling exciting and fresh and a new way into the Spider-Man story. I think, certainly, the idea of diversity in film, in general, and a superhero movie particularly, is something that excited everyone. And there were 800 people that worked on this movie from all different backgrounds and it was exciting to feel like we were represented in this film. And I think that definitely, we felt like this is really wonderful to be able to bring that into a superhero movie.

Image courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

Donya:
With telling a diverse story, how do you at Sony ensure that depictions are respectful from the perspective of a creator or a writer? Is there a hiring process to bring in diverse writers? Is it policy or is it just the best people for the job or the people you feel are able to tell that story?

Christina:
Yeah, I think in some ways they sort of go hand in hand, right? Because you need a diverse group of people as filmmakers to tell that story, right? We are a diverse group of filmmakers and we have many ethnicities and there are many women involved and so I think it just happened organically because you’re surrounded by a representation of many different types of people and so we all have something we can bring to the table.

And so, I don’t think there’s anything specifically that felt like an edict from the studio, but I think it just organically happened because there are so many of us as filmmakers and we all do have different stories to tell and come from different backgrounds.

Sean:
If I can just touch on that from a studio perspective instead of a writer perspective. If you are stuck in a situation where you have to depict a group that isn’t in your writers’ room? Or even if you do, does Sony have some kind of internal process, like, “Oh we’re going to do a test screening,” or “Oh, we’re going to have a sensitivity reader,” or someone just calls in to check over something?

Christina:
Yeah. Not really. There is really no studio policy. I think they just sort of allowed us as the filmmakers to drive the story. And certainly, when you get into post-production you do test the movie. Just in general. Does the audience respond to it? Are they liking what they’re seeing? The feedback is generally about what is working and what isn’t in a story. It’s a standard practice done at all studios to test audience responses to films. And I think you learn so much from those test screenings that, even though they’re terrifying for producers and directors and everyone else on the scene.

Sean:
Do you have the ability to make kind of corrections based on the test screenings or are they mostly, “Oh, they are so late in the process… They’re more how to market than how to correct”?

Christina:
So we start testing the movie once you have about 30% of an animation. You still have about seven, eight, nine months to go before the movie is released. And you do it in live-action and in animation always, I think that’s always been the testing period. Live-action as well, you’re just in post-production. But you definitely have time to course correct.

And it’s really interesting, it’s one of those experiences where you’re so close to the movie and you’re in editorial for months in this little vacuum and your group. And then the minute you put it out into the audience, it just plays completely differently. And you don’t necessarily—you’re not forced to make changes, but you want to because you feel what isn’t working for the audience.

And it’s so important to see it live like that with a group of people who are experiencing it for the first time. You’ve learned so much and, in my experience, it just always has made the movie better and in animation, particularly, it’s nice because you do have that time to go in and change it and rewrite and make things feel more authentic or make things funnier or you’re characters more understandable to an audience.

Donya:
Is there a space, then, for those test audiences to actually provide you feedback. So, for example, if something doesn’t play or land well? Do you then invite them to give a more elaborate form of feedback so that you get closer to the root of why it didn’t play well, other than just initial reactions while the movie’s still playing?

Christina:
Right, this is interesting. You feel it right away and you kind of know intuitively when something is not playing for an audience. You sort of immediately know what the problem is. And then afterward there’s always focus groups. There’s just like 20 people from the audience and ask questions, but nine times out of 10 you see it with them, or feel it with them, while you’re watching the movie together and it becomes suddenly very apparent what’s not working.

Yeah. It’s the power of a group of people watching a movie is just a very interesting part of the process.

Donya:
It’s always really hard to hide that reaction.

Christina:
And they want to love it. I think audiences that go into every movie and want to love what they’re seeing. So, you don’t feel like you’re, you know, people want to just support the film.

Sean:
That was something that seemed to go well. I remember seeing a tweet after Spider-Verse came out which was someone saying they watched Spider-Verse with their nephew and they said something like, “Hey, Spider-Man’s mom speaks English and Spanish like mine. Can I be Spider-Man, too?” It’s like that kind of message of everyone is welcome here is amazing to see.

Image courtesy Sony Pictures Animation

Christina:
Yeah. Absolutely. And I think for young kids or young girls it was exciting for young girls to feel represented as well, you know? And I think just so many people responded to Miles and it was really rewarding to see that because it was so important that his emotional story and his just, this young boy just coming into his own and trying to like his parents and figure out who he is as an older human being was really exciting that people responded to. And everybody worked really hard to tell Miles’s story and hope that he was acceptable with the audience.

Donya:
So a sequel has entered into development now, and that’s the only thing that we know other than one of the directors, but is a similar process going to happen just generally the way that the first Spider-Verse movie was so collaborative between multiple directors and multiple producers and everyone else involved? Is that something you’re hoping to recapture with the sequel in that it brings a lot of diverse voices again into the next installment?

Christina:
Right. Yeah. I think it’s so early and to be honest we’re still sort of basking and just so excited by the responses of the audiences of the first movie. It’s really early days, but there are many stories to tell. There’s a lot of talented people and I think, yeah, that the hope would be to keep this process going the way it’s going because it obviously seemed to work real well with the first movie. But it’s so early it’s really hard because I don’t have any specifics.

Certainly, I think, Phil and Chris and their storytelling is a huge part of moving forward. And Amy and Avi and just, it’s a great group of people.

Correction (4/19/2019): An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified the VFX supervisor as Danny Steinman – it is actually Danny Dimian. We apologize for the error.

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