Nammude Spidey: How techies from Kerala made 'Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse' a visual treat
The lines that made the new Spiderman movie possible stemmed from the hands of a few tech heads who hail from Kerala
While talking to international media ahead of the theatrical release of Spider-man: Across the Spider-Verse a few weeks ago, the film’s three directors — Joaquim Dos Santos, Kemp Powers and Justin K Thompson — had assured fans of the franchise would offer a visual treat, with new worlds and the introduction of exciting characters. They kept their promise.
The film has incorporated various animation styles to highlight each world, including paint on glass, realistic cartoons, Japanese manga, and even the texture of ‘70s comic books published in India to depict the character of Pavitr Prabhakar, aka the desi Spiderman. This feat was made possible by a band of animators, who hail from God’s Own Country.
They are senior animators Nideep Varghese from Ranni in Pathanamthitta, Harinarayan Rajeev from Poojappura in Thiruvananthapuram and Sinu Raghavan from Urulikunnam in Kottayam, senior software engineer Kurian Onnunny Samuel from Pattazhy in Kottarakkara, and senior software pipeline technical directors Binku Mathews, who is settled in Hyderabad, and Joseph Tom Neriamparampil from Changanassery in Kottayam. Currently based in Canada, the six-member team worked on the movie whilst at Sony Pictures Imageworks (SPI), Vancouver.
Nideep, who had worked on Spider-man: Into the Spider-verse, the first instalment of the trilogy, expressed delight at the chance to work on the franchise again. “The film centres around Miles Morales and Gwen Stacey’s valiant efforts to save their fellow Spider-people from a formidable villain who goes by the name Spot,” he says.
“We were enrolled in the project three years ago and had been working on it until April 2023. For me, who grew up reading comic books and making fan animations of Spiderman since childhood, it was a dream come true. Though we were given rough storyboards, I didn’t read them. I only watched the whole movie when it was released in theatres. I wanted to enjoy it like any other Spiderman fan.”
Nideep’s primary contributions were to establishing Spot, one of the film’s most fascinating characters, in terms of animation style. In the comics, Spot was always portrayed as a living painting, his body very much in a liquid state.
For Harinarayan, a senior animator who was in charge of the character development of Spot, the task was an exploration of all the animation skills in his arsenal. “I had to participate in the character development of Spot from the initial stages of production,” he explains.“Spot, voiced by Jason Schwartzman, is a really stylised and innovative character whose movements are inspired mostly by pantomime as he does not have a face. I got opportunities to conduct a lot of animation experiments to fine-tune Spot. It is definitely one of the biggest highlights of my career.”
According to Nideep, who is now employed in Dreamworks Animation, an animator not only has to draw and structure the character but also has to evolve and act in the role to conceive it in the right form. “I had to construct the emotions and actions of Spot. So, I had to act, record it, and send it to the team’s head to get approval to create the same,” he says.“Animators who worked in the movie required intense knowledge of acting, body mechanics, technical expertise, and a good sense of artistic appeal.”
Harinarayan, who is also the animation supervisor in the upcoming Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, adds that each character in the film was animated at a different frame rate. “It was a challenge for us to animate each character in its distinct art style, exactly like how it is in the comic strips. Each pose required a lot of attention,” he says.
Kurian, a senior software engineer, primarily assisted in the creation of various tools for the animation studio and data management, critical tools development and related software solutions. “The first challenge before us was implementing variable frame rates,” he says. “Normally, films use 24 frames per second, but we moved away from the norm and employed different frame rates in several action sequences.”
Binku and Joseph, who served as senior software pipeline technical directors in the team, ensured the project’s smooth operation by identifying and rectifying the issues of each department. Notably, Kurian, Harinarayan, and Nideep began their career with Toonz Academy in Thiruvananthapuram. However, the team laments the lack of technical know-how to create big-budget animation movies in India.
“The industry here (India) runs in a hierarchical manner. Ideas and views are not cherished here,” says Nideep. “However, in Canada, during the making of Pavitr Prabhakar, we Indian animators felt that the dubbing for the character did not have an Indian essence. When we alerted our team head, they considered our opinions and even made changes.”
Nideep also rues the fact that despite the large amounts of money thrown into projects in India, the animation employed lacks quality. “There isn’t a professional animation culture yet,” he adds.
He, however, is delighted at the Spiderman film’s success in Kerala. “I got emotional watching people throng the theatres. Our viewing culture has changed. Animations are no longer just children’s stuff,” says Nideep.
Ace in the pack
Harinarayan Rajeev, who is the animation supervisor of Transformers: Rise of the Beasts, which will have its theatrical release in India on June 9, spills the beans on the film, too. “As the animation supervisor of the movie, I led a team of 40 animators in Canada and India,” he says.
“The film aims to cater to all generations of Transformers fans by introducing the G1 designs and a new group of Transformers called the Maximals, who can transform into animal forms. Voiced by Ron Perlman, Primal can transform into a giant gorilla, while Air Razor, voiced by Michelle Yeoh, transforms into an eagle. Cheetor and Rhinox are also set to make their appearance in the film.”
Notably, Harinarayan has also worked as an animator in films such as Venom 2, Maleficent 2, Kung Fu Panda, Trolls, and Avengers Infinity War.
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