How “Spider-Verse” forced animation to evolve

Cool new video from Vox about how back in 2017 Sony Pictures/Imageworks offered up an alternative route to the now classic photorealistic Pixar-style animation. Prior to the release of “Spider-Verse”, mainstream studios were hesitant to diverge from the super successful Pixar-style and go with more stylized animations.

After Toy Story, almost all animation studios wanted to follow in Pixar’s successful footsteps, straight down to their style. Many studios sought out “The Pixar Look”: extremely high quality, physically based, and in some cases almost photorealistic.

It’s an appealing approach that remains popular at the box office — but animated movies started looking kind of homogeneous. And while studios and independent artists tested out more stylized approaches in short films, no studio would commit to a feature-length animated movie that looked so different.

That is, until Sony Pictures/Imageworks took on Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Instead of chasing the look everyone was after, the team wanted to create something visually new. They did it with “non-photorealistic rendering.”

Now, we’re beginning to see more and more movies with stylized animations like The Mitchells vs. the Machines. Prior to 2017 however, there were already exceptions to Pixar aesthetic dominance. Some of these exceptions, I would argue, are better and more magical than most Pixar, Disney, or Sony movies. For example, the wonderful 2015 Irish film Song of the Sea. There’s a great piece in Den of the Geek about how Song of the Sea‘s Director Tomm Moore and his Irish production studio Cartoon Saloon created the film.

Beginning with line drawings on paper and watercolour backgrounds, Song Of The Sea‘s animation is embellished further with computer graphics – an approach which, if anything, makes the movie look even more like a moving painting. Whereas in the past animators were largely restricted to painting each frame on transparent cels and layering them over a hand-painted background, Moore’s team of animators had no limit over the number of layers they could put in each frame or the kinds of detail they could put into them.
“Traditional animation – I love the look of it, and I try to keep that because I think it has a timelessness, but it was limited to the technology of the day,” Moore explains. “You could only have so many cels before they start to cancel each other out and get really dark. It had to look like flat colours on a painted background. Whereas now, we’re able to use almost any technique – we can animate a charcoal line.”

Here’s a trailer for Song of the Sea below for reference.

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