When I visited Persichetti at the Sony Animation Studio in mid-October, the film went racing to goal and the director's area was an activity branch. Thanks to our interview, Persichetti sent to an act III battle review with the film's co-author and producer Phil Lord. An outdated burger sat down on his desk and became colder in the minute. I had requested an interview during production, because I thought it would make a more interesting conversation, but when I was in my office I could feel the tension in production. Should I take valuable time that he should have used to actually make the movie? Do not worry, Persichetti calmed down. "This is the most relaxed moment I've had in days, weeks, maybe a year."
In our conversation we talked about the unconventional director structure of the film (Persichetti shared directives with Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman), its huge animation staff (possibly the largest ever having worked with a cg animation feature), how Persichetti and the rest of the crew challenged the conventions of cg animation production , and why Sony Imageworks was the only studio that could do such an experimental animated feature.
Cartoon Brew: I just saw some of the movie from the movie and I'm surprised at what you got away with. How are you doing
Bob Persichetti: There were many factors pulled together so that we could go as far as we did. And I think one of them was because it was another Spider-Man movie. It was like "Why do another Spider-Man movie?", Which was originally my question as they approached me. They did not even realize that it will actually be Miles. So then when I read the treatment, I was like, "Oh, it's Miles … amazing." And then it's more than just Miles; It is the Spider Verse and there are a handful of other characters we have incorporated into it. But that was the driving force: we have to do something different enough. There is a standard type of system in the animation feature to make it look what it looks like it looks standardized. There are obviously beautiful things out there, and there have been amazing movies – and I've been a part of them too – but this was the opportunity [where] if we could do something our own way, what would we do?
At which point did you decide that you should try to do something radically different and experimental? Was there an initial discussion with the producers Chris Miller and Phil Lord?
Bob Persichetti: That was definitely the task. We can make a Spider-Man moviemanager so we can look at the source material series – and drag from it, and we can find a visual language that feels like it is derived from a comic book. It was always something early – let's do something else. In practice, it was, "okay how are we doing that?" And then we started breaking apart, just the printing process and how you represent something simplified as lighting or inking of the characters. How much you can achieve with a single bag. All these little pieces went into this great ambition, and we just started experimenting.
And then we [said] let's remove all the movies filmed in all of today's movies, even live-action, which are things like motion blur, rack focus and animation is all about them. You must run all these simulations for hair and fabric, and the pipeline requires that you have a new image each frame moving so that these simulations can work. That's when we really started pushing the machine because they had to come up with new simulations that worked for animation of two. If we do not get motion blur, how do we do the camera's movements because we will not lock the camera every time?
So we came up with all these different devices to counter the shortcomings of cg and let the things that were weakness become our strength. It joined together – we began to see some animation tests that were about the sticky consistency we hoped to find. And then Justin [Thompson] as our production designer was amazing and we had a fantastic visual development team who did paintings for two years and tried to find out just how to represent shapes and lights graphically but on top of cg elements because we still wanted to move the camera.
So you did much of the visual development here on Sony Pictures Animation, and then you give it to Imageworks and say "Replicate this. This is what we want."
Bob Persichetti: Exactly. That was Danny [Dimian], our vfx supe, one of their best guys up there, just an experienced pro and been on a million movies. He was like, "I only have some reservations. If we do not have it … then this is what you want …" It was okay let's paint ourselves in a corner and let's find a creative solution from that corner. So, we came to them with all these kinds of "asking" and those ambitions that were originally for them were: "We can not do it. I promise you when you see it on screen, you will not want it." And we were like: "Well, let's see it and then let's move from there."
So they stopped doing our actual testing – the physical mocking-up of a shot, the animated tests – and so we saw the problems and started to solve the problems. One of the biggest problems apart from the pipeline was just the people we needed to do this. The idea of animating twice for many of our animation staff was completely strange to them. They are younger children who have never ever done hand drawn animation so the concept of all other frames and key bags and all things were a bit soft for them. So there was also a learning curve there.
You have three directors on the movie. Who came first?
Bob Persichetti: I came three years ago, in 2015 …
As I remember you were notified of On Animation Playmobil projects before …
Bob Persichetti:I'll give you a little quick backstory. I got stuck Playmobil Here, with Frenchies who had done The little prince. Wrote a treatment for it, wrote a script for it. Pitched this one. Sony tried to buy it. That deal coincided with the French company, but I was not exclusive to the guys or anything. I was just connected to the specific project.
So you tried to do Playmobil at sony?
Bob Persichetti: Yes, and it happened; They made an agreement, and it all fell apart. And it was in the tail that they said, "What do you think of Spider-Man." And I was, "I have not really thought about Spider-Man." And they told me Phil [Lord] and Chris [Miller] had written a treatment and we would love to read it. It was my introduction to these guys because I have never worked with them.
So I arrived at the beginning of December 2015. And we had no script yet. It was early. I think we had a loose first act that Phil had pointed to, and then in the next six months we had a full draft and we boarded at the same time and got things rolled.
How were the other two executives involved?
Bob Persichetti: I had worked with Peter [Ramsey] a lot earlier, and he developed another project for[[[[Spider-Verse producer]avi [Arad] like the director. So Peter and I had a story, and I was like, "Hi boy, I'm doing it Spiderman. At least you have to make boards for me. "So I would only give him scenes and he would make boards. He and I always worked very well together, and this project was so time consuming – it was always a feeling that I know I will need a partner and Peter perfect for It's his house. So Peter came as another director, who I think in the end of 2016.
It was time when Phil was MIA because of Solo and all these things, and we needed to iterate the script, and we were looking for another author. Rodney [Rothman], who had done a lot of things for them Jump Street movies he appeared as just a writer, and then everything started with snowball, he came as writing support and steering, and Peter and I all went together and went, "okay how are we doing this?"
Now a writer on a movie is not a director …
Bob Persichetti: No, [but] I also think he would really target and we did not have a writer Phil could completely approve except Rodney. Since many writers in animation, they come with directors to editorial, and they will write while we cut and we will get all written, and it's a real organic process and I think [Rodney] want to go beyond this, so he said, "I give you the time you want, but I also want to control." We had a little bit of a round table meeting with Phil, Chris and our producers, other producers, and it was like, okay, Rodney will be the third director. Apparently, Peter and I were originally "How is this going to work?"
It's not common …
Bob Persichetti: No, it's not.
So I'm curious if you can explain a little about the hierarchy and the structure of this setting …
Bob Persichetti: The structure was almost like stop-gap action, in a super-clear way. It was like typing support happens here … you are in editing … we try to get through these scenes in animation … let's come back to edit to do this … that was sharing and conquering. And when we all were together in editorial, it became a moment for us to make sure we were all on the same side and make sure we all made the same movie because we were so busy. Honestly, our animators were on average one foot of animation one week, which is really bad. So we grinded, just trying to get up. It was quite intense, quite crazy, and somehow we only managed to agree, which is kind of shocking. (Laughing)
It is very interesting that everything worked. I mean, I know the latest animated features with just two directors where the directors can not stand each other.
Bob Persichetti: Fortunately, Peter and I have been friends for so long, it was a no-brainer. Rodney and I became friends on this project and we will be friends afterwards.
And then you have two other strong-minded directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who produce the movie. How were they involved in the whole process?
Bob Persichetti: More than [Chris] Miller, it's been Phils baby because he wrote the first draft. Not that Chris is not involved, but he also has Lego 2 that they work on So there is a part of a division and conquer between the two of those that happen. But in a strange way, it probably ends up working a lot more like a writer's room creatively because you need a decision-making process. It's like … I'm voting for this one … I'm voting for this one … oh wow, that's crazy we're all on the same page. Or … I really believe in this idea. Well tell me why. Okay, I'll get it … let's put it in our next preview and see if it's flying.
Phil had this both inspiring but also ridiculously absurd line of, "Hi, I think the movie just tells us what it wants to be." And I'm, "I hear you … okay …" And in a strange way, yes, we presented things and we put things in the movie and there are some things that the film rejected. And that was kind of obvious. And then there were other things where it's like … I do not think the movie rejects it, but you might think it's. We definitely had lively conversations.
It's a testament that you did it to work. What I've seen is a coherent view and you often do not feel when watching a movie made by several directors. In animation, you think you always need the visionary director, and you've shown that a team can do something that represents a unified vision.
Bob Persichetti: Yes, I think the irony is that it's part of thematic message to the movie: Find a team, find others like you. What's inside Miles becomes Spider-Man in a universe where there's already a Spider-Man, and so are other Spider people. It's like: "Oh my God, I'm not alone, I'm not the only teenager that's going through this." So in a strange desert twist we experienced all our own version of this movie in reality, where the guy who first came, [it was like] oh, I'm going to have a director row; oh, I'll have another director, wow this is nice. Will it ever work? I have my doubts. And then I was pleasantly surprised.
Of course we are all pretty passionate people, and we do something that requires a lot of passion to look through. And that includes Phil and Chris. We have all really gone to bathe things in a way that we can all be proud of. And if conflicts arose out of it, within a day or two, everything was gone and we stacked our hands again and continued on. It was my own lesson to work with others.
And we had such a big crew. At one point, our animation crew was 172 people, which is just absurd. I was in the anim reviews for as seven hours a day. It was just like, "I have to get off this couch [and take a break from reviews]. "
Why was the animation crew so big?
Bob Persichetti: Because the movie was so low. (Laughing)
But why was the movie so low …
Bob Persichetti: Footage was so low because we did this where we made all our models sculptable. I've been in animation for a really long time; I was lucky enough to help Glen Keane Tarzan and Treasure Planet, and I worked with Andreas Deja. I got a crash course in traditional 2d animation, so I saw what you could achieve with a drawing – and how a computer and computer model and model models limited it in a way.
So if we took this term "Hello, the good thing about a serial time is that every single panel is in camera and is as expressive and as dynamic as a bag can be" and we tried to make our animation with what the philosophy behind it, then we can not be limited to the model that lives exactly the same. So we built this ability to basically scan all our models. We make a rough pass in the anime and some of the cleaning of it would go in and add stretches in areas where you would draw it straight away. So there was a lot of detail work.
Just so I understand, there are several models of the character …
Bob Persichetti: No, it's a model that's flexible. So, if you look at our animation, it does not have much noticeable squash and stretches in it. The idea behind it was if we want something that corresponds to squash and stretch, let's telescope it. So the leg suddenly goes three times longer for one or two frames.
We started to bring all these small substitute versions of the animation rules so that it felt different in texture and feeling, but it still achieved the same goal – either feeling weighted or expected or influenced or so. All of these things were hard to learn because they were all out of the box for our entire crew. And they all come in. That was what was row. It was like, "Here is the challenge. Yes, I know this is the tenth time we have reviewed this shot, but I have more notes. We will get there and it will be accelerated."
It took only a long time to postpone and really catch our battle. This movie has about 2800 pictures in it, which is a lot for one of these movies. When you saw how there are panels on the screen, each of these panels is a separate shot. There are three seconds, but there are three panels, so it's nine seconds off [animation]… it's exponential. We will probably have a slumber of this case where we try to figure out exactly all the things we did because we were kind of flying and responding to what we saw, so some things we did not plan. And then we just went, "Ooh! I like it. How do we do more of it?"
I want to follow up a comment you made about coming from a traditional animation background. Can you talk a little about what you get and what you lose when you work in cg animation compared to working traditionally?
Bob Persichetti: The core of the part where we are in editorial and trying to make the wheels work is the same. So the stories are the same – want to find really engaging characters that are on a convincing journey. Everything else may have the same department on it, [but] completely different.
Alberto Mielgo was one of our great early painters / designers and he was a great advocate for "I do not want to build sets. Let's just paint all the backgrounds." And that's amazing, but we can not process it. We can not do such a function. But that's the breath that this movie needed.
There may therefore be no things happening today, as it's animation, the most expressive media you can hop on in movies, when you do it on a computer, and you have to build a city, especially as in New York , it may be in a computer, but it is real and you begin to put the restrictions on top of you that are like live-action. And that things are the things we really tried to push against. How do we get this movie to feel we were walking around New York Street and we were shooting in New York without building the entire city on a computer.
Before, if you could draw it, it may be on the screen. Now you have to build it, and you have to build it in a way that you can either reuse it – and we're talking about budget issues, but it will be used enough to make it worth building time. So single settings are super expensive and [the lack of that option] becomes limiting for you. It's part of the difference between 2d and 3d, it's so strange that 3d puts handcuffs on you.
Cg has created this really effective pipeline that allows people to be super expressive and fluent with their accomplishments, but just as you have to build the city, you must now live within the character. That character is that character, and as soon as you start playing and pulling it, it looks like a model. And it still has to move in this fluid way because we need all these frames to do all these other things the computer wants for lighting and fabric and, for example. Then it started to feel homogenized.
It was probably the biggest driving force. It was like, "Wait, you want to do what for this shot?" Yes, how do we do that and maybe we do it in four shots, but we do not want to rebuild a new model so we were always finding solutions. And in a strange way, I think that the only place that could handle such a feature was probably Imageworks, just because they are a vfx studio and they are used to a supplier-vendee relationship, so they are like "Ok, we have to figure it out. "
If we were at Dreamworks, Disney or Pixar, I think they would only have been "The Animation Department is run by this person and this is how it works, and that's what needs to be highlighted, so we have to meet the needs. " [With Imageworks], we just went, "You must meet our needs!" as spoiled children but for one purpose.