Spider-Verse: Boundary-Breaking or Back-Breaking?


When “Into the Spider-Verse” was released internationally on Dec. 1, 2018, it was immediately clear that the movie was a complete game-changer. It had everything: an intriguing plot line with great action scenes and emotional turmoil, interesting characters that felt and acted like normal people, and a distinct, stunning art style that emulated a comic you could pick up in a bookshop.

The sensational animation is undoubtedly the hallmark of the Spider-Verse franchise. It’s absolutely gorgeous. Animators employed a technique known as 2.5D animation to create the movie—although 3D animation and technology are used to create the base animation, artists on the animation team of the Spider-Verse movie digitally painted over the frames to create scenes that look like they were ripped straight out of a comic book. Ben-ray dots (which were used for shading and secondary colors in comics from the 50s and 60s) are lightly overlaid on top of scenes to add to the effect.

Another way the movie achieves this comic-like style is by having the characters run at different times—literally. Most everyone in the series is animated on ones, meaning a new image is shown every frame, creating the smooth animation we’re used to seeing from other large entertainment companies, such as Pixar or Disney. Animating on ones is the standard in the industry nowadays. However, Miles Morales, the main character of both Spider-Verse films, is animated on twos, in a technique known as “stepped animation.” This means that a new image is shown every two frames. For example, if a film is moving at 20 frames per second, Miles would only be moving at 10 frames per second. 

Usually, stepped animation is a method only used by animators for rough drafts. However, animating Miles on twos allowed the Spider-Verse films to provide both an intriguing visual and a clear, subconscious message to the audience that Miles is somehow different from the other characters in the series.

Miles has been brought to life through stepped animation since the first movie, but “Across the Spider-Verse” introduced a new character in Hobie Brown, otherwise known as Spider-Punk, for whom they also utilize the technique. Hobie’s personality revolves around a distaste for authority and corrupt leaders. He’s a self-proclaimed anarchist, and his love for chaos manifests in his design, which looks like a disorderly collage of newspaper clippings, stickers, and paint. In order to capture Hobie’s nonconformity, the animation team for Spider-Verse revisited their techniques for Miles and stepped it up a level—or three.

According to director Justin K. Thompson in an interview with DiscussingFilm, the Spider-Verse animation team took two to three years to perfect the animation technique for Hobie Brown. On the social media platform X, Supervising Animator Chelsea Gordon-Ratzlaff described how the team finally achieved Hobie’s style. They listed the team’s basic rules: Hobie’s body was animated on threes, his guitar on fours, his outline on twos (but only when he was moving), and although his vest was also animated on threes, it was delayed by a few frames so it was never moving with the rest of his body. Even with these guidelines, Gordon-Ratzlaff said that “we broke these rules when needed.” Every part of Hobie moves at different speeds, which really puts new meaning into one of Hobie’s most iconic lines in the movie: “I don’t believe in consistency.”

The artistic team for the Spider-Verse films has broken boundary after boundary in the field of animation, and it’s paid off—both movies in the series have received critical acclaim and worldwide audience appreciation. So why aren’t film and animation studios following in Spider-Verse’s footsteps?

Well, for one, it’s expensive. Two to three years spent figuring out how to animate just one character is a ridiculous task, not to mention the COVID-19 pandemic slowed down production for a few years. Innovation is a difficult and costly goal, one that studios usually aren’t so willing to take risks on. That’s why Pixar has released movies in the same animation style for years on end, with most of the characters following the same visual archetype. Even Spider-Verse artists couldn’t get a complete grasp on the costs of unconventional animation. For one, they didn’t even finish the movie.

 Various versions of “Across the Spider-Verse” were released when the film hit theaters on June 2, 2023, and the final cut of the movie that is now available on streaming services is likely completely different from the version audiences might have witnessed in theaters. Although many fans of the franchise have theorized that the slight differences in the movie from screening to screening are a nod to the multiverse that the film exists in, the more likely explanation is that the animation team simply wasn’t done.

It’s not just little details like a changed poster in the background; it’s complete changes in art style. In one version of the movie, the lines across Miles’s face are sketchy and unfinished—in another, his skin is completely smooth. Some versions of the film have different voice lines, some scenes are cut entirely. The many film variations suggest that the creative board might have struggled to settle on a definitive vision, which could very well have been the case. “Across the Spider-Verse” had three different directors, and the team often “had to do alterations and revisions to be demanded on parts of the movie that the other director had otherwise approved.”

Over one thousand animators were hired to work on “Across the Spider-Verse.” In the end, though, nearly 100 professional artists left the team due to intense pressure before the film was finished, according to The Vulture, an American entertainment news website. Animators that remained were overworked, often made to labor for 11 hours a day, every day of the week. Working on the film was described by animators as “death by a thousand paper cuts.” 

The Spider-Verse films are stunning, breakthrough pieces of media that have revolutionized animation; the cost of this innovation, however, is high. It is in instances like these that we as consumers have to weigh what we value more: the invention of new, beautiful art, or the basic needs of the creative minds behind it.