Into the Spider-Verse’s legacy in American animation

Polygon asked Januel Mercado (co-director) of It’s Puss in Boots, The Last Wish, about animation that inspired the visual look of his DreamWorks movie, he had an easy answer: “Obviously Spider-Verse.” The movie’s evocative oil-painted style doesn’t look like the Shrek franchise that spawned it. But it doesn’t just give an existing series a makeover. As with so many American animations released over the past few years. The Last Wishveers from the American aesthetic which defined American animation over decades. It aims for a more dynamic, impressionistic design.

We have a solution for you. Spider-Man: Into the Spider-VersePlease thank.

The first Spider-Verse film redefined American animation in 2018. It did not only change the way superhero movies are made (or, if you prefer to be more specific, Spider-Man films). The stylized style of the film celebrates animation, a medium that can be anything. The film did more than just show what animation can be. It is a good idea to useIt also encouraged directors and animators push the limits of aesthetics accepted and to take chances on stylized, personal artwork.

Puss in Boots, an animated orange tabby in boots and a swashbuckler hat, charges at the camera in a blur of motion lines against a stylized blue-and-purple background in the trailer for Puss in Boots: The Last Wish

It’s Puss in Boots, The Last Wish

Mr. Shark, Mr. Wolf, Mr. Piranha, Mr. Snake (Marc Maron) in costume and surrounded by cops in The Bad Guys

The Bad Guys

The American animation industry has been a copycat for most of its history. Disney style dominated cartoons in the US for years, but when Pixar released its first movies it established a new standard for CG. After a last round of cel-based animation in the US, CG has become the standard. Although technology has transformed animation dramatically since the early days, Toy Story to 2022’s LightyearThe pursuit of realism has become the norm. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but in the same way that it got tedious to see other studios copying Disney’s musical formula in the post-Renaissance era, it can be tiresome to see the same visual style over and over — not just for audiences, but for the animators creating these movies.

“I find [the long-standing style]… ‘boring’ is probably excessive, but I want to see something different,” says The Bad Guys director Pierre Perifel. “Frankly, I’m not the only one. […] You can see the trend is shifting a little bit.”

“We’re at this place where so much has been conquered [in terms of realism]. Now it’s more about, how do you use it? So it’s not like we have to make a completely new tool. It’s a little bit more: What if I don’t want it to look real?” says Enrico Casarosa, director of Pixar’s Luca.

Luca and Alberto looking out at a town across the water in the evening

Image: Pixar

A girl in a red coat and blue skirt stands on a mountain surrounded by five boys in matching orange shirts with purple clouds in the background.

Turning red
Image: Pixar

When animating the water for that movie 2020, it was an intriguing scenario. For a long time, animators coveted the ability to animate photorealistic water — rendering convincing, believable textures was the ultimate goal. But Casarosa sought more warmth and expression for the water in his film: “The computer wants to do a beautiful splash of water that has every single droplet in it. And we’re like It would be nice if it was a simple, beautiful and poetic line.”

“There’s just something tactile that you kind of feel is missing from a lot of CG animation,” Turning red Domee Shi, director. “When it came to shading clothing or skin textures [in Turning Red], there was just a little bit more of an artistic touch to it.”

Verisimilitude is not the only thing animators are trying to get away from. Last summer’s Sea BeastFor example, the film definitely leans towards realism when it comes the the waves crashing on the sea. But now, American directors have more of a choice — one they weren’t allowed to make before Into the Spider-VerseIt was evident that the audience is hungry for style experimentation.

The sun sets over a rugged northern winter landscape, as seen in Klaus

Image: Netflix

Some of their limitations were due to the limits of what the computers could do, while others came from what the studios executives thought was worth the investment. While American animation has stuck with one style for pretty much the last 20 years, international studios haven’t been bound by those expectations. Around the globe, animators pushed boundaries for what CG can be. They also fleshed out hand-drawn animated films that American major studios had abandoned. Aside from Studio Ghibli movies, American audiences are notoriously indifferent towards foreign animation.

Into the Spider-Verse wasn’t the first movie to reject the Pixar-influenced style of CG animation, but it was the first with such a distinct look to really reach American audiences, gain widespread critical success, and most importantly for studio heads, make a lot of money. Animation studios were now willing to try new things and experiment. Realistic animation became an alternative, and not the standard.

Into the Spider-Verse’s sequel, Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse, pushes the first movie’s visual stylization even further, mishmashing dozens of different styles, from the drippy watercolor washes of Gwen Stacy’s word to the cut-out collages that make up Spider-Punk. The movie’s visuals are a feast for the eyes, and will inspire animation studios around the world.

“I think we may have fallen into a bit of a standardized version of CGI, which it doesn’t have to be,” Klaus Sergio Pablos spoke to Polygon in 2019 “It’s good to see things like Spider-VerseFor instance, you can promote that particular medium. Because to me, every film should be an attempt at doing something different.”

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