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December 07
2021

ISSUE

Web Exclusive

DEALING WITH THOSE ‘WHAT IF’ QUESTIONS FOR MARVEL’S ANIMATED WHAT IF…? SERIES

By TREVOR HOGG

(Images courtesy of Marvel Studios and Disney+)

When American physicist Hugh Everett III proposed in 1954 that quantum effects cause the universe to constantly split, in essence creating a multiverse, he was scorned by his colleagues; however, the concept was embraced by the comic book industry which saw unlimited narrative possibilities, as characters never died and there was always another variation of them waiting on the alternative-dimensional sidelines to replace them.

The debut episode imagines what would happen if Peggy Carter was injected with the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers.

The debut episode imagines what would happen if Peggy Carter was injected with the super-soldier serum instead of Steve Rogers.

In 1977 Marvel Comics established the What If…? series with Spider-Man joining the Fantastic Four in the debut issue. Writer and producer A.C. Bradley (Trollhunters: Tales of Arcadia) has expanded the franchise into an animated anthology for Disney+ with the debut season consisting of nine episodes revolving around Peggy Carter becoming a super-soldier, T’Challa being the subject of an alien abduction, a sociopathic and revengeful Hank Pym, Doctor Strange literally confronting his dark side, superheroes being turned into zombies, Ultron giving birth to Vision, and Uatu the Watcher having to decide whether to become an active participant.

What If...? embodies the spirit of the comic book series it is named after that was established by Marvel Comics in 1977.

What If…? embodies the spirit of the comic book series it is named after that was established by Marvel Comics in 1977.

“We try to be specific with the way the characters move, fight, act, and the filmmaking of it. Because like the rest of the MCU, we’re visiting a whole variety of genres, tones and styles of movies. The film language itself is extremely specific from episode to episode and from story to story; that’s what we’re trying to nail in the storyboard process.”

—Stephan Franck, Animation Supervisor

“What we are trying to do differently from the live action is to play up the concepts of silhouettes. We’re constantly making sure that a character or object or environment is placed where you can see it. We’ll put atmosphere behind a character, make them darker  and put a rim light on them. We’re always trying to push stuff to get it to look cooler or more dynamic.”

—Paul Lasaine, Production Designer

Proxima Midnight appears in Episode 102 where T'Challa takes on the mantle of the Star-Lord.

Proxima Midnight appears in Episode 102 where T’Challa takes on the mantle of the Star-Lord.

Chadwick Boseman portrays T'Challa for the final time in What If...? as he subsequently died from cancer.

Chadwick Boseman portrays T’Challa for the final time in What If…? as he subsequently died from cancer.

Collaborating on the world-building with Bradley and director Bryan Andrews was Production Designer Paul Lasaine (The Boxtrolls). “There is a responsibility to pay tribute to the movies, which is cool and hard,” states Lasaine. “What we are trying to do differently from the live action is to play up the concepts of silhouettes. We’re constantly making sure that a character or object or environment is placed where you can see it. We’ll put atmosphere behind a character, make them darker  and put a rim light on them. We’re always trying to push stuff to get it to look cooler or more dynamic. The rebirth lab set in Captain America: The First Avenger was lit differently from how we did it in Episode 101. We needed to simplify things down because we wanted it to have an illustrative style; that alone starts creating its own rules. We’re going to break things into three layers. There’s the railing in the front, the pod, and the back wall with all of the computers. How are we going to see all of those layers? We put a layer of atmosphere behind the pod to get the right silhouette. The background has to go slightly out of focus,  otherwise we won’t be able to see the pod. It’s a challenge and a fun little puzzle.”

Integrated into the background of each episode is the silhouette of Uatu the Watcher, who is voiced by Jeffrey Wright and serves as the narrator.

Integrated into the background of each episode is the silhouette of Uatu the Watcher, who is voiced by Jeffrey Wright and serves as the narrator.

Placed in charge of overseeing the animation provided by Blue Spirit, Squeeze, Flying Bark Productions and Stellar Creative Lab was Animation Supervisor Stephan Franck (The Smurfs: The Legend of Smurfy Hollow). “The ability to create collectively a unified performance is one of the defining traits of animation. The comics have a special kind of magic in terms of their power, energy and excitement; there’s something mad and unique about them. All of our stories are born in the MCU when it comes to revisiting certain moments where life turned out a bit differently for a character. The third element is the classic American illustrator vibe of people like J.C. Leyendecker who have an elegant and broad- shaped language. The combination of these three things helped us to come up with a presentation that felt new and exciting on the outside just as much as the stories were in the inside.” What If…? combines 2D and 3D animation. “We were originally going to try to do the whole thing in 2D, but for a number reasons it did not work,” reveals Lasaine. “Our characters are in 3D, so we will build these low- poly proxy sets for most things. Those will get turned into line drawings which then go to the background painting department.”

A dark storyline that Agatha Christie would be proud of takes place in Episode 103 when each of the Avengers mysteriously die, including Hawkeye.

A dark storyline that Agatha Christie would be proud of takes place in Episode 103 when each of the Avengers mysteriously die, including Hawkeye.

The classic American illustrator vibe of J.C. Leyendecker, who had an elegant and broad shape language, was a major inspiration.

The classic American illustrator vibe of J.C. Leyendecker, who had an elegant and broad shape language, was a major inspiration.

Great attention went into storyboards mostly for the poses of characters. “In typical animation there are so many boards going by that you’ll see mouths moving while live action will have one or two per camera setup,” observes Lasaine. “The environments are more simplified in the storyboards. Sometimes nothing will be back there or just a line for the horizon or a square for a door.” The animatics were such that one could get engrossed in the story. “That happened to me several times!” laughs Franck. “We try to be specific with the way the characters move, fight, act, and the filmmaking of it. Because like the rest of the MCU, we’re visiting a whole variety of genres, tones and styles of movies. The film language itself is extremely specific from episode to episode and from story to story; that’s what we’re trying to nail in the storyboard process.” Extensive color keys were created for each episode. “We’ll try to do at least one per scene because every one has a certain color palette and lighting style,” remarks Lasaine. “Our color keys are frames of the movie, but very small with enough detail that we know that, ‘This is at night. Here is our color palette. Our character is lit from the right with a cool rim light on the other side.’”

Doctor Strange literally has to deal with his dark side when he attempts to reverse time to bring Christine Palmer back to life.

Doctor Strange literally has to deal with his dark side when he attempts to reverse time to bring Christine Palmer back to life.

Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development at Marvel Studios, handled the character designs. “It was a dream come true for me, the idea of being able to work on characters that I’ve loved for years through the comics into my time spent with the MCU and transitioning them into animation. The fact that we were going for a slightly more realistic style in the proportions and how the characters emote, and there are strong ties to the MCU, meant that I had a lot of firm footing to move forward.” The live-action actors served as the basis for their animated personas. “The idea of doing ‘Skinny Steve’ in an animated form that felt like the Steve Rogers that you saw in the first Captain America film while we were also figuring out the style was challenging,” notes Meinerding. Upwards of 200 to 300 designs can be done for a character in the MCU before settling on the final version. “We have a library of that stuff which are unused directions,” he adds. “We used that as a starting point for the some of the characters where we could show places that we could go. But the idea of doing an evil Doctor Strange, for example, is a definitive place that we didn’t go down in the MCU. We ended up having to do the same explorations that we would have done for the films on this project.”

Proving to be so popular were undead versions of the Avengers, which resulted in the development of an upcoming animation series titled Marvel Zombies.

Proving to be so popular were undead versions of the Avengers, which resulted in the development of an upcoming animation series titled Marvel Zombies.

Animation was provided by Blue Spirit, Squeeze, Flying Bark Productions and Stellar Creative Lab.

Animation was provided by Blue Spirit, Squeeze, Flying Bark Productions and Stellar Creative Lab.

“One of the fun parts of my job is the notion of knowing that the Iron Man suit could mean something different in the next movie and figuring out how to make the character design a storytelling opportunity,” notes Meinerding. “Sometimes the storytelling is not that important, like the notion of Tony Stark’s armor getting more advanced. However, in other occasions Captain America is wearing a shield outfit instead of a Captain America costume because he has left the behind some of the patriotism that had been part of his previous looks. This one in particular is an interesting situation because the amount of creativity that is going into the storyline with the twisting and turning of characters that people already love means there is a clear direction to go down fun paths. An evil Doctor Strange is a fun thing to figure out, and doing Captain Carter as a super soldier. There are things that are inherent to those ideas which are compelling to me. I love the idea of telling stories with costume and character designs and having them so integral to the concept of the project. Each one of those characters can represent each episode. That’s a character designer’s dream come true.”

Character designs were revised to various degrees to better translate into animation.

Character designs were revised to various degrees to better translate into animation.

“[T]he amount of creativity that is going into the storyline with the twisting and turning of characters that people already love means there is a clear direction to go down fun paths. An evil Doctor Strange is a fun thing to figure out, and doing Captain Carter as a super soldier. There are things that are inherent to those ideas which are compelling to me. I love the idea of telling stories with costume and character designs and having them so integral to the concept of the project. Each one of those characters can represent each episode. That’s a character designer’s dream come true.”

—Ryan Meinerding, Head of Visual Development, Marvel Studios

What If...? provided an opportunity for Howard the Duck to take center stage and get married to Darcy Lewis.

What If…? provided an opportunity for Howard the Duck to take center stage and get married to Darcy Lewis.

Character designs were revised to various degrees to better translate into animation. “The more a character is called upon to do physical, unique, bespoke things you have to work extra hard in creating the animated version so you can do justice to all of those things,” notes Franck. “If you watch Episode 101, Peggy Carter does so much. You see her from every angle possible, like in the montage. We had to make her work in all of those situations.” A certain aspect was critical for success. “We have great character designs and a great way to animate them, but then you still need to create a performance,” emphasizes Franck. “Those performances are multidimensional. What’s fun in the MCU movies in general is that these characters have a bigger-than-life quality to them, so much so that you feel like you’re watching a Jack Kirby drawing coming to life. But, also, those characters are human, and you can feel their personalities and how specific traits are dialed in. We leaned on everything that we had in animation to make the fights and action as exciting as you’re expecting, but also capture the vide of specific characters as we’re putting them through new situations that let you explore them in ways that you’ve never seen before and lets you discover what is under the hood of their personalities even more.”

A fun creative challenge for Ryan Meinerding was visually depicting an omniscient presence.

A fun creative challenge for Ryan Meinerding was visually depicting an omniscient presence.

The live-action actors served as the basis for their animated personas.

The live-action actors served as the basis for their animated personas.

A new addition to the cast is Uatu the Watcher who narrates and appears in every episode. “The fun for the Watcher to me was the notion of an omniscient presence which is there but not there and trying to come up with a visual for that,” states Meinerding. “He becomes the thing that you have to try to spot because if you blink, you’ll miss him. There is a shot of Phil Coulson driving along the bottom of the screen and the Watcher is standing in the background. That kind of stuff turns him into this huge cosmic presence that is also just there to watch. You’re looking into him and seeing time, space and star fields. That was all of an intention to make you feel that amazing, powerful presence, but he’s really just there to tell you the story.”

“We have great character designs and a great way to animate them, but then you still need to create a performance. Those performances are multidimensional. What’s fun in the MCU movies in general is that these characters have a bigger-than-life quality to them, so much so that you feel like you’re watching a Jack Kirby drawing coming to life. But, also, those characters are human, and you can feel their personalities and how specific traits are dialed in.”

—Stephan Franck, Animation Supervisor

Uatu decides to intervene in an effort to stop Ultron, who has taken over the body of Vision.

Uatu decides to intervene in an effort to stop Ultron, who has taken over the body of Vision.

Different circumstances have an impact on what personality traits are brought to the forefront.

Different circumstances have an impact on what personality traits are brought to the forefront.

The living dead are introduced as part of the MCU with Zombie Scarlet Witch causing havoc in Episode 105.

The living dead are introduced as part of the MCU with Zombie Scarlet Witch causing havoc in Episode 105.

Different circumstances have an impact on what personality traits are brought to the forefront, such as the Thanos (Josh Brolin) conversion caused by his encounter with T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman). “Obviously, these are wonderful actors who understand their characters well,” states Franck. “Josh’s performance of Thanos is brilliant. And what’s brilliant in there is that it’s not a different character. It is Thanos, but his life has turned out differently. That’s the overall fun of this. It’s this human thing of wondering what would have happened in my life if I forgot my key and didn’t take that train where I met my spouse. Life puts you into situations and reveals something about you that you would never know unless you were put into that situation. There is a richness to the exploration of these characters that is so juicy for animators.”


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